House Mother



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dating back to 1994

As Neli Vazquez-Rowland drives up Michigan Avenue, she gestures at the plantings in the median. “It’s one of the best-kept secrets of Chicago,” she says. “People don’t realize that the people who work on those medians were formerly homeless or incarcerated. They’re getting paid to do that work, they’re learning a job skill, and they’re getting a work ethic that they can transfer over to anything.” She points to the holiday lights twinkling on the trees. “We do that, too.”

By “we,” Vazquez-Rowland means A Safe Haven, a network of shelters that address the causes of chronic homelessness and teach residents how to live without drugs and alcohol and reenter society. She and her husband, Brian, founded the organization 17 years ago after his successful battle with alcohol addiction. Since both of them were stockbrokers, they could afford his pricey rehab—but they quickly realized that only their personal wealth separated them from the addicts who ended up on the streets or in jail.

“We learned firsthand that there were really no protocols for people who lacked resources,” says Vazquez-Rowland. She was incensed that the fragmented services offered by government agencies weren’t meeting the needs of others she encountered who were struggling to get their lives back on track. So in 1994, the Rowlands bought and renovated an abandoned apartment complex in Logan Square. The 13-unit building became the first outpost of A Safe Haven.

After funding the operation with her own paycheck for five years, Vazquez-Rowland tracked down state funding and quit her day job to run A Safe Haven full time. Under her guidance, more than 32,000 people—referred by judges, counselors, and others—have been led through a step-by-step program that includes treatment, education, health care, job training, and job placement. A Safe Haven now has 16 facilities—20 by the end of 2011—with 1,200 beds for residents and 500-plus apartments it rents to organization “alumni.” With an annual $16 million budget, it has become both the largest and most successful shelter in the United States. About 70 percent of the people who complete the program remain sober—an achievement recognized by the federal government with two recent grants totaling $800,000.

At a Roosevelt Road facility in Lawndale (which serves as both a shelter and the organization’s headquarters), a sixth grader gushes about how much A Safe Haven has helped his mom. A 50-something woman who has finished the program says goodbye to the receptionist with a smile, bound for her very first apartment. A young man curses by the front desk before admitting, “Yeah, I really need this.” Many on staff can tell similar stories—many of the caseworkers are graduates of the Safe Haven program.

“We run this as a business, but we look at it from a different perspective,” says Vazquez-Rowland, 40, who now spends three or four days a month at an office in Washington, D.C., meeting with federal agencies and pushing for her model to become the national norm. “We have what we call a double bottom line: It’s about saving money and saving lives.”

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