Welcome to the St. Francis House Board of Directors, Damon!

Welcome to the St. Francis House Board of Directors, Damon!

Damon Harrell is the newest member of the St. Francis House Board of Directors.  We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Damon – via Zoom, of course – so we could all get to know him better.

Could you share a bit about your background?

I was raised in Madison, Wisconsin, home to the University of Wisconsin, which is what brought my parents there for graduate school and where they stayed. Because it’s a university town, Madison has more diversity and more cultural opportunities than you’d normally get in a city that size. It was a good place to grow up. So good that I followed in my parents’ footsteps and went to UW, where I majored in behavioral psychology and criminal justice. That was with an eye toward law school until I realized that no one I knew was happy in law school.

So, I switched things up a bit and found my way to Merck and a career in the pharmaceutical industry. Along the way, I picked up my MBA at Wharton. After a number of years at Merck, I moved to Boston to take a position at Alkermes, a biopharmaceutical firm that has a central focus on mental health. A year and a half ago, I was named Vice President of Marketing for the Alkermes Psychiatry Franchise.

How did you first learn about St. Francis House?

We have my daughter Lauren, who’s now a high school junior, and for years around the holidays, we would go through the requests we’ve gotten from various charities and pick a few that she’d like us to donate to – a decision she’s very thoughtful about. A couple of years ago, she chose St. Francis House. What caught her eye was that part of the mission is feeding the hungry, which she connected to my volunteer work with Bristol Lodge Soup Kitchen in Waltham.

Tell us about your experience at Bristol Lodge.

Pretty much since joining Alkermes, I’ve been part of a group that goes into Bristol Lodge once a month and prepares, from scratch, a three-course meal – salad, entry, and dessert – for 80 folks, many of them experiencing homelessness. Fast forward a few years, and my colleague who’d been leading this effort stepped down to take a different position away from Boston. There was the running joke that the person who had all the knives and sharp utensils was the person in charge. When this person left, he gave me the sharp utensils and told me “it looks like you’re the one with the bag of knives, you are now in charge.” And so, I found myself the lead organizer…

Were you a cook prior to that?

My mother was an excellent cook, and growing up, my family pretty much always sat down for dinner together. But if there was something that you wanted that wasn’t on her menu plan, she pretty much told us to fend for ourselves. So I did. Fast forward, and, in my house, we all love to cook and are all about family meals. I’m more of the experimenter, I like to try new dishes, and since the lockdown, I’ve been trying a lot of slow-cooker dishes.

Post-COVID, we’ll have to get you into the SFH kitchen.

You’ve got a deal.

What drew you to joining the St. Francis House Board?

When a colleague on the Board asked if I were interested in becoming a member, the opportunity was very appealing to me. Over the years, I’ve done a lot of active volunteering with organizations that focus on kids, education, diversity, people in need. Some of that volunteering was ongoing, like, the monthly meal at Bristol Lodge. Some of my other volunteer activity has been more focused on single events. I really liked the idea of being involved with St. Francis House because it would be ongoing, because there are a lot of things going on there, and because of the continuum of care that it provides individuals.

Because mental health is often part of the picture for the guests of St. Francis House, the work also dovetails with my professional responsibilities. At Alkermes, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to work with mental health groups – and this has included getting to know people who suffer from substance abuse, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and other mental health conditions. I’ve developed tremendous empathy and respect for those living with these challenges. And I love the fact that St. Francis helps them do so.

Have you had any other board experience?

A number of years ago, I became part of a group of parents with kids in the Bedford Public Schools who wanted to find a way to better support the Metco students who were commuting out to our schools from the inner city, as well as children from Hanscom Air Force Base. We were looking for ways to make sure that we provide a welcome environment, and make these kids feel a part of the Bedford Community Over time, our group realized that our mission of fostering inclusion, diversity, and racial equity would be better served if we were set up as a non-profit. So we established the Parents Diversity Council, with a slightly broader mission statement, and I’m a founding member of their board.

What do you do in your no doubt endless free time?

For one thing, I’m a volleyball Dad, as my daughter is on the Bedford High team and the Mil City club team. I also have two black Labs, Lucky who’s an easygoing girl, and Scout, a boy who doesn’t seem to be outgrowing puppy mischief. I like to spend a lot of time outside, which is a lot of time out hiking with the dogs. And I’m also a pretty avid reader, and always have at least one book going. At present, it’s Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun.

Anything you’d like to add?

Just that I’m delighted to be on the St. Francis House Board and I’m looking forward to digging in deep with the organization and its mission.

What do you do when you can’t just “get a job”?

A crucial part of our mission here at St. Francis House is helping our guests find work. But for many of our guests, working – whether full or part-time – is just not possible. They may have chronic health conditions or disabilities that make working too difficult. They may be at a point in their lives where they need to focus on finding stability before they can make the transition to joining the workforce. 

To help these guests, the Workforce Development team has two counselors, Lisa Vogel and Jae Spalding, dedicated to optimizing our guests’ sources of income. Lisa has been working on income maximization since she joined St. Francis House five years ago.

“Most of our guests do have some form of income,” Lisa says. “They receive basic Social Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Income (SSDI), or veterans’ benefits. SSI maxes out at about $800, SSDI at $1,400. If you check the rental listings, you’ll see pretty quickly that this isn’t enough to live on. Our goal is to help our guests increase their income – using means other than employment, which is not always possible – so that they can stabilize their lives and rebuild them in a way that’s sustainable.”

Recently, Jae, who’s been at SFH for nearly two years now, joined the income maximization team after having been involved with the Moving Ahead Program.

“Chronic health conditions and disabilities make it difficult for many of our guests to work full time or even part-time. So we look for other ways to increase the money available for them,” says Jae. “We explore everyone’s situation in depth to help them figure out what’s feasible. We often find that there are other programs they’re eligible for. One good example is people collecting basic SSI who are actually eligible for higher-paying SSDI benefits. If they’re eligible, we assist them in applying.” For those able to work, Jae and Lisa also help guests tap into training programs that the government supports, such as Social Security’s Plan to Achieve Self Support and Ticket to Work initiatives.

The team also makes sure that guests can take full advantage of state cash benefits from the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance; of Veterans or unemployment benefits; transportation assistance such as discounted T-passes and trips on The Ride for the elderly and disabled; and of SNAP benefits to help pay for food. And they help guests make the most out of the benefits they do get.

For those with complex immigration issues, the situation is even more difficult. Even a lawful resident must be in the U.S. for five years before qualifying for SSI. Eligibility for SNAP benefits requires legal residency as well. “It’s a hustle,” Jae says, “But for people who are ineligible, we make a plan with the individual so they can find food, guiding them to places that serve breakfast, lunch, or dinner throughout the week, and to food pantries where they can get a bag of groceries.”

For guests that can work, Lisa and Jae help with the juggling act of working while still receiving critical benefits. With SSI subtracting a benefit dollar for every two dollars earned, even working a part-time minimum wage job can quickly eat into benefits. Soon enough, the effective wage someone is earning has decreased sharply. And they still haven’t closed the gap between what they’re earning and what they need to live on. Sometimes Lisa and Jae are able to identify work-related expenses – e.g., a pair of necessary work boots, or a uniform and apron for a waitperson – and find assistance.

Lisa and Jae also help guests with difficult and often overwhelming situations that can hold a guest back from achieving financial stability. One guest had significant IRS debt – so significant, that if he worked legally, his entire paycheck would be garnished. As a result, he worked construction “under the table”, making him ineligible for workman’s compensation, unemployment insurance, and health benefits. Lisa helped negotiate matters with the IRS. As a result, the amount due was whittled down to a manageable level that enabled the guest to return to the workforce with an “on the books” job. This had a compounding impact on his life: he found stable housing, maintained sobriety, and reunited with his son.

Homelessness is often associated with hopelessness. By helping this guest resolve what he thought was a hopeless situation, St. Francis House was able to help a guest fully rebuild his life.

“Jae and I are lucky,” Lisa says. “We have a really interesting and rewarding job. With all the different programs out there, we get to be creative. And we get to work with people who are each in a unique circumstance, and who have proven themselves to be resourceful and creative in the ways they’ve been coping over the years with some incredibly difficult situations.”

Jae echoes Lisa’s words here. “Our work is like a puzzle that we’re solving together with our guests in a way that creates sustainable improvements in their lives. It’s challenging, but it’s rewarding knowing the result is usually the long-awaited key out of homelessness for the individual.”

Whether it’s helping a guest find a bit more income, or find a place to eat – which, by the way, is sometimes St. Francis House – or find their way out of a disastrous situation and onto the path to rebuilding their lives, our workforce and income maximization team is there for our guests every step of the way.

The Women’s Center: A Critical One-stop Shop for the Ladies of SFH

March is Women’s History Month! In addition, for more than 100 years, International Women’s Day has been celebrated on March 8th. To celebrate this day, we thought we’d talk about the work we do week in, week out with the women who come through our doors. 

Named for long-time St. Francis House supporter Carolyn Connors, our Women’s Center is dedicated to the unique needs of our female guests. While women make up only 20% of our guest population, the number has been growing rapidly in recent years. Women experiencing homelessness and poverty have complex needs. At the Women’s Center, our focus is on providing a secure and comfortable place for our guests, a respite from the streets, and a place where they can get the help they need to survive, and to move beyond survival to rebuilding their lives.

Last September, Jessica Shaughnessy joined St. Francis House as the Women’s Center Activities Coordinator. Jess hit the ground running and, despite the constraints imposed by the pandemic, developed an ambitious program calendar for our female guests.

Sunday is a day of complete relaxation. Guests can take it easy and sign up for the morning or afternoon Game session, where they can play Bingo or board games, and participate in other fun activities. The women have many opportunities to win small prizes that they can choose for themselves from a prize box containing little luxuries such as face masks, hand cream, and hair clips.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, Gurleen, our art therapist, comes wheeling in for Art on Wheels, engaging our guests in a fun art project. One week it was sewing (pictured left, below), another week, Gurleen got people making their own emery boards! Monday afternoon means Stephanie from Workforce Development is hosting her Lifestyle Coaching group (pictured right, below), which focuses on “how to be the best you,” covering topics like mindfulness, movement, nutrition, and more.


Each Tuesday, Jessica runs the Self-Love group, engaging guests in activities and conversations around self-love, self-care, and self-esteem – keys to helping our guests define and meet their goals. On Tuesday afternoons, the women get to play film critic with the Movie Group, watching and discussing a different film each week. This Tuesday, we’re screening “Becoming”, Michelle Obama’s book tour documentary. There’s also an occasional “Coffee with Karen,” where guests meet with our President Karen LaFrazia to share their ideas and concerns.

The Relaxation Group, where Jess leads a discussion and has the guests practice ways to cope with stress through various meditation and relaxation activities, is held each Wednesday morning. Once a month, our Boston Health Care for the Homeless nurses, Frazell and Cara, run a Wednesday session focused on different topics associated specifically with women’s health.

On Thursdays, guests can sign up for the Creative Writing Group, sharing their own work, as well as the work of favorite writers. Other Thursday groups include the monthly Housing Workshop, where Savannah and Peggy from our Housing Navigation Department share their expertise on all topics related to housing. Twice a month, Colleen, a member of our Workforce Development team, runs a session called Maximize Your Income and Benefits, where guests can learn about benefits, employment, and training programs.

Friday there are no scheduled groups, but women are welcome to just hang out and relax. The Women’s Center is closed on Saturday.

In creating the monthly calendar, Jessica wanted to have a good mix of groups: creativity, mindfulness, relaxation, and educational. “The program schedule is ambitious, but there were so many people from the different Saint Francis House teams who came up with great ideas, and who wanted to run sessions. The enthusiasm and support from the staff, the collaboration across multiple departments, has been very gratifying, and a good example of how our teams work together,” Jessica says. She added that, “so many women who were coming to the Women’s Center to just be in a safe and secure spot were missing out on some of the valuable services we offer. With the variety of groups that are now available, our guests are more aware and more engaged.”

The most difficult thing Jessica has to do is turn guests away when there’s no room for them. The limit for each group is seven. Post-COVID, the hope is to grow the size of each group to ten. The limitation is a recognition that the Women’s Center is small, but the smaller size makes it easier to engage and involve all of the participants, without the group size becoming overwhelming.

The Women’s Center averages 25-30 guests each day, with 80-100 unique visitors in the course of the month.

Jessica will also be running the annual Women’s Day of Renewal in May. While, due to COVID, the program will be different than it’s been in the past – when guests were pampered with haircuts and massages – attendees will be provided with boxed lunches and small gift bags stuffed with goodies.

At present, Jessica is the only staff member dedicated fully to the Women’s Center. St. Francis House is hiring another person to focus on one-on-one interactions with the guests, while Jess will concentrate on the groups and activities that help make the Women’s Center such a vibrant and meaningful place.

Overnight shelter at a local hotel? Challenge Accepted!

Last fall, the City of Boston asked St. Francis House if we could run an overnight shelter for them. With winter just around the corner, there was heightened concern about an influx of people who’d been sleeping outside when the weather was tolerable, but who would now be looking for a place to stay the night. With winter, there’s always an uptick in demand, but with the pandemic, the situation was especially dire. With COVID, the shelters had needed to “deconcentrate”, moving beds further apart and taking other emergency measures that translated into fewer beds available for those in need.

Could we run an overnight winter shelter? One where the guests could stay for the winter without having to sign up daily at an overnight facility like the Pine Street Inn, and where they could keep comfortable and out of the elements during the day….?

Our answer was yes!

After reviewing a number of different sites, our team decided on the Charles River Inn in Brighton, a basic, no-frills hotel that would allow us to accommodate 100 residents in need of a place to stay, with a special wing to be dedicated to women. St. Francis House has already had experience with this location, as last spring we managed a COVID-19 isolation facility there for ten days, solidifying our choice as the right one.

Each room already had a mini-fridge, a microwave, a bathroom, and a TV, and to accommodate two to a room, we swapped out some of the king-sized beds and replaced them with two doubles. In addition, the Charles River Inn is located in a commercial area, limiting disruption to a residential neighborhood. The site was nearly perfect for the long-term stays we were envisioning for our guests.

Andrea Farina, our Vice President of Program Strategy and Initiatives, sprung into action to put everything in place – getting the lease, insurance, and permitting issues squared away; hiring temporary staff; arranging for food, cleaning, and laundry services; planning for onsite workforce development and health services, and worked with the city to identify guests who we felt would be able to manage well in this setting.

On December 1, St. Francis House began onboarding guests. With a capacity of 100, the resident population has held steady between 90 and 100.

The guests “checked in” knowing that they had a place to call home through March – the date has now been extended until the end of April – and would have this time to focus on finding permanent housing.

“It was amazing to see so many people who’d been living day

Meal delivery thanks to Pine Street Inn’s iCater and Women’s Lunch Plate

to day on the streets and in the shelters have a stable living situation for the winter months,” Andrea says.

“A number of the folks spent their first couple of days pretty much just sleeping. For so many, a room at the Charles River Inn was the first time in a long time that they’d had a quiet, more private, and more comfortable place to lay their head at night than a cot in a noisy room where hundreds are sleeping (or trying to sleep).”

And, come morning, they could sleep in, a luxury not afforded them at an overnight shelter. 

Andrea and Angel Marte, St. Francis House Manager of Community, Engagement, and Safety, work full time at the Charles River Inn. A temp agency provides security and guest engagement professionals, augmented as needed by St. Francis House staff. Three meals a day are provided. Women’s Lunch Place brings in breakfast and lunch, and dinners are provided by the Pine Street Inn’s iCater program. (And for residents who want an occasional change, there’s an IHOP and a McDonald’s nearby.) Pine Street Inn’s iLaundry program takes care of the towels and sheets, while there’s an onsite washer-dryer for personal laundry. And if guests have clothing needs, clothing is brought over from 39 Boylston. Rooms are cleaned twice a week, common areas daily.

There’s a bus stop not far from the Inn, with a bus route into downtown Boston. For those with medical and other appointments, we provide cab vouchers.

“I’m so happy to see how well things have gone,” says Angel. “We’ve only had a couple of people who turned out not to be a good fit, and some folks have been housed, there really hasn’t been many turnovers. It’s so gratifying to see so many people thrive in this environment.”

Two of the most important challenges our guests face are permanent housing and a job. Women’s Lunch Place works with the women on housing stabilization and placement; Homestart works with the men. To date, eight people have found permanent housing. Six others should be housed within the month, and another five or ten are on a positive housing track.

Our workforce development team has members at the Charles River Inn four days a week, working on identifying employment opportunities for those seeking work, and helping find sources of income that might be available to those unable to work.

Healthcare for the Homeless, which staffs our clinic at 39 Boylston, has a nurse on-site twelve hours a week. Charles River

Health Center came in at the end of January to provide COVID-19 vaccination. To date, about 60% of staff and residents have gotten their first shot.

Overall, residents and staff alike are giving the Charles River Inn experience high marks.

“Within the past decade, funding has been moving away from old-time transitional housing and redirected toward permanent housing. Permanent housing is, of course, the ideal, but we’ve moved away from preparing people for housing,” says Andrea. “The reality on the ground is that many people do benefit from having a stepping-stone to permanent housing. It helps people put their lives together when they don’t have to place 100% of their focus on pure survival. What we have at Charles River Inn is a humane sheltering model. It will be interesting to see what happens moving forward. A successful program like the one we’re running here showcases how transitional housing can and does work.”

We’ve missed having Andrea and Angel around, and will be happy to see them when they return this spring. In the meantime, congratulations on a job well done for the residents of Charles River Inn.

Joe Moves Ahead Thanks to the Moving Ahead Program

“For precocity, some great price is always demanded sooner or later in life”—Margaret Fuller

My name is Joe Simpson. I grew up in a small town called Roper, North Carolina. There was a paper mill there called Weyerhaeuser, where they produced paper products and lumber for building materials.

The majority of my family worked at the mill, and this is where I first became fascinated with tractor-trailers, as some of my family members operated them as well. I have been around trucks all my life. It has been a dream of mine to become an owner/operator.

One of the first jobs I had was driving a dump truck for a friend of mine. I started driving dump trucks around the age of 19. However, due to some poor choices that I made, I had a setback from pursuing my dream to become an owner/operator.

Despite this, I have been able to make a turnabout with my life, beginning with earning my GED while incarcerated in Laconia, New Hampshire in 2001.

After my release from incarceration in August 2020, I was committed to a better life for myself. Although I faced challenges when seeking support due to my past experiences with substance abuse, incarceration, and more, I never gave up and continued to persevere.

Then, I learned about St. Francis House through the Gavin Foundation, where I am a member of the Peer-to-Peer Wrap Around program.

When I first arrived, St. Francis House provided me with the necessities: hot meals, clean clothing, and a case manager to help me directly. In November 2020, I started the Moving Ahead Program (MAP) with the St. Francis House workforce development department.

Through MAP, I was connected to sober, safe housing that allowed me to focus on my employment skills. Over 14 weeks, I received the proper training to re-enter the workforce successfully. I learned how to write resumes, cover letters, and I’ve been brought up to speed with technology. Now, I feel more connected and confident because I can do things on my own without asking for help.

In addition, thanks to the workforce development department at St. Francis House being a MassHire AccessPoint site, I was connected to the New England Tractor Trailer School where I will begin training in the truck driving program on March 15th after completing MAP this month.

Joe pictured here at MAP Class 186 graduation with MAP instructor Lisa Joseph and SFH President and CEO Karen LaFrazia

After serving my time and being released from incarceration, I was grateful for the support of St. Francis House. During my time here, I was able to find services in order to improve my life, to change my old behaviors, and to be more available to my family.

I feel confident that I will be employed after graduating. The outlook in this career is very lucrative, and my passion and interest in tractor-trailer trucks have only grown. My future plans include starting my own transportation business. It has always been my goal in life to work for myself and prepare a healthy business for my grandsons if they desire to follow in my footsteps.

Thank you for this opportunity, St. Francis House.