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Creating a society where all people can flourish: Nils Behnke

Alum Nils Behnke discusses the evolution of homelessness, its persistent problems, and how St. Anthony's is helping to break the cycle.
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In many cities around the world, growing levels of socioeconomic inequality are contributing to alarming levels of poverty and homelessness. In this Alumni Voices video, Nils Behnke (MUNI, SUMM 97-00), CEO of San Francisco-based St. Anthony's, shares how his organization is helping alleviate the crisis in one of the United States’ hardest-hit neighborhoods and how those practices can be used elsewhere.

For those who prefer to read the interview, below each video is a transcript that has been edited for length and clarity.


The homelessness epidemic

My name is Nils Behnke. I'm the CEO of St Anthony's. I've been in this role for about three years. Prior to that I was a board member for about ten years, and during that time I was pursuing a corporate career that started with McKinsey in the early nineties.

Homelessness has been a persistent problem in the Bay Area for as long as I can remember. When we look around the neighborhood here, especially the Tenderloin and South of Market, and you see the number of unhoused people and the circumstances under which people live in poverty here, those who are unhoused and those who are marginally housed, we cannot be happy with the status quo, and we need to do something about it.

We're strong believers that change starts with us, and it starts one person at a time. We all need to find change in our own hearts so that we can make change happen more broadly. A lot of the people we are called to serve who experience homelessness, don't just experience homelessness. There are a multitude of different things that are barriers in their life to make changes. Substance use is definitely one. But there are many, many ways that people experience intergenerational poverty. People talk about trauma, but quite frankly, a lot of the people we are called to serve are literally terrorized by the things that they have experienced in their lives.

There are lots of mental health issues, and so it becomes harder and harder to break that cycle for people. That is very different from how it was 20 or 30 years ago, where a lot of the people who ended up in the Tenderloin were alcoholics. They had an experience of life before that, which they could reference. And they understood that if they stopped drinking, they could have their life back. There was a concept of what it would look like to return to a job or return to a family. And most of the people we serve today just have never experienced that. That makes it very, very hard to reach them and to establish trust, but also for them to make a change in their lives. And that's why it takes a very long effort to make that happen together with them.


Understanding the root problem

When I look at what's going on in San Francisco, one of the challenges is that, despite all these years of experiencing homelessness, we don't really have a deep understanding of the root causes. What is the problem we're really trying to solve? And if you don't know what the problem is that you're trying to solve, how can you solve it?

I think it starts with the realization that reason and compassion can go together very well. And so our ethos as an organization is to see every human being in their God-given dignity and their own personality and to address them in that way. So we never take an approach where we just look at people as a group. We look at every individual, and every individual has the right to be served with respect and dignity.

We need to understand what intervention is going to help this person, and at what point in time. So while it is an incredibly personalized and individualized approach to every person, it doesn't mean that the interventions and services that we have couldn't be standardized. And the magic really happens when we understand what we can bring together for an individual person using the services we have available, which is really the entire idea behind care integration. And it starts with a thorough understanding of a person and a willingness to accompany them on the journey.


"A gateway of stability" through service

There are services like our dining room and our daytime rest program, and our hygiene hub, which really meet people’s most basic needs. We see that as a gateway to stability. People who engage with us, who start trusting us despite many bad experiences that they've had in their lives, they're able to ask for more and we have more to offer.

We have health services. We have a medical clinic and a recovery program. But we also are a bridge to opportunities for many in the workforce development and transitional employment and technology programs that we have, and I think that's where it really comes together. First of all, at the very heart of what we do is to invite people in need to come and utilize our services, but also to change their lives. But that is a mutual experience. The people who are here to serve them, be it staff, be it volunteers, be it other people who are here helping us – they're also invited to meet other people and to change their lives and reconsider how they think about their lives and what their journey is like. And that journeying together, this accompanying each other and being in community, is very joyful.

We do anniversary lunches where I sit down with some of the people on our team. One of the women who works for us spoke in very eloquent and moving terms about how she had found herself in a shelter situation with her two little children and how connecting to our services and employment opportunities has really changed her life. Now she has a place to live. Then she also talked about the fact that she had already been our guest as a child together with her mom. And I think that is a moving story, but also a call to action, right? We need to break that cycle where people keep coming back.


Creating a society where all people can flourish

We're not just here to serve, but we're here to make a change. One part of our mission is to serve those people most in need, and to lift up their spirits. The other one is to create a society in which everyone can flourish. A deeply held belief of our organization is that change happens person by person. The unit of change is one person. One person at a time finds change in themselves, in their heart, and then they can change things, and they serve as an example to others. If enough people do that, then we will change systems and we'll change the city. But it starts one person at a time.

A lot of the people who are on staff here have experienced homelessness themselves. We have about a hundred people on staff who are former residents and graduates from our own Alcohol and Recovery Center. This is very important because it shows how we can bridge the situation that many people are in and help them find stability and renewal and a new perspective.

Many of the people we have on staff, often in managerial and supervisory positions, are people who actually have experienced that. And that is so important, because they don't just have empathy, they have lived experience, and they see things in a way that you or I never could. It has really been very humbling for me to better understand how massive the barriers are for people. This is probably the most difficult neighborhood – certainly in the city, maybe in the state, and maybe in the nation at this point in time. But things that work here will work elsewhere.

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