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Lunch with Mimi: Susanna Paul

by on January 13, 2012 11:00 AM

As development and community-relations coordinator at Housing Transitions Inc., Susanna Jech Paul is part of an organization whose work has helped rebuild the lives of Centre County residents in need. By sharing the organization’s story with the community, she is able to bring different groups together, from landlords to government agencies, to help Housing Transitions’ clients get back on track toward stability and self-sufficiency.

Born in Los Angeles, Paul was raised in State College. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in history from Stanford University, and masters of public policy at the University of Maryland. After 20 years away from the area, she returned to State College after her husband, Michael, was offered a job at Penn State’s applied research lab in 2009.

Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Paul at Harrison’s Wine Grill in State College to discuss how Housing Transitions is working with the community to find a long-term solution to the Centre Region’s need for affordable housing.

Mimi: We’re here today because I find you to be someone that our readers should get to know. You’re a native of State College. You left the area and then came back.

Susanna: I left in 1989 when I had finished high school and I came back 20 years later, when my children were 6 and 9. A lot has changed in the area, but more than anything my perspective has changed. I now have children and their welfare is my primary concern. I believed that coming to State College we’d find excellent schools and a safe, caring community — and that has been the case. Within about a week of moving into our house in Park Forest, six or seven neighbors came by with cookies, brownies, and homemade candy to welcome us. That was reflective of how this community has opened its arms to us.

Mimi: What’s the most exciting thing that’s happened to you since you arrived?

Susanna: The day that I recently said to my husband that I love my job. And he said, Susanna, in our 14 years of marriage, I have never heard you say that.

Mimi: And tell me why you love your job.

Susanna: I spent years and years teaching. I had participated in Teach for America in the 1990s, and I taught at the college level as well when we were living in Maryland. I had thought since my childhood, mostly because of my experiences at Radio Park Elementary School, that I was destined to become a teacher. But I think that it wasn’t quite the right fit. As much as I loved being in the classroom, I was much more interested in the students’ stories and in their lives than I was in teaching them academic material. My interest in human stories is what has drawn me to the human-services sector. Working at Housing Transitions, I get to work with people whose stories are changing every day — changing for the better.

Mimi: This is the first time you’ve done work like this.

Susanna: That’s correct. What I love is the opportunity to tell Housing Transitions’ story and to share the inspiration that we get from the clients with the community.

Mimi: You’ve got a lot more visibility right now, so that’s partly your hand at work. You’re expanding, right?

Susanna: Well, there was an article in the paper with a headline that was a little unclear. We’re not physically expanding, but thanks to a grant, we are expanding our services to a certain population that we wouldn’t normally be able to serve as thoroughly. We provide a continuum of housing services ranging from emergency-shelter services for the homeless to housing case-management services for the near homeless to programs for homeless individuals with mental illness.

Mimi: That’s pretty important.

Susanna: It’s extremely important! It’s a very underserved part of our population nationally. I don’t know who said it, but a society can only be judged by how well they treat their weakest members — for example, people with illnesses that prevent them from thriving independently.

Mimi: Where do you think the breakdown comes in your experience with this?

Susanna: It’s very complex. I think that some people would struggle in compliance with their medications. They are sometimes misunderstood by employers, landlords, or people who they have professional relationships with. It’s sometimes difficult to give help to people who resist help, and there’s a trust issue that needs to be resolved as well. So, there are multiple ways in which a breakdown can occur, and what we do is learn the person’s story to determine what their personal challenges are. Sometimes, in addition to mental illnesses, those challenges can also include childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, a history of substance abuse, or some other barrier to self-sufficiency. We can’t apply a one-size-fits-all approach. Our case workers really try to learn people’s stories, understand where they’re coming from, why they’re going in the direction they’re headed in, and how do we get them on track toward stability and self-sufficiency. When we check back in with former shelter residents a year after they’ve left us, over 90 percent of them are still in the safe, stable, affordable housing situation that we helped them find.

Mimi: Well, that’s pretty exciting.

Susanna: It’s really exciting. It’s one of the reasons that I love my job. Another reason is the highly competent people that work for the organization. Everybody I work with likes each other. Everybody gets along. It’s a wonderful, very supportive climate.

Mimi: What is the annual budget?

Susanna: A little over half a million.

Mimi: How many people can you have?

Susanna: We have what we call a continuum of services, and that’s everything from our emergency homeless shelter to our first time homebuyers.

Mimi: So, you have homeless shelters downtown?

Susanna: Yes, on East Nittany Avenue. And through that whole continuum of services, or what I like to call a spectrum of services, last fiscal year, 2,400 people in Centre County were given some type of service. And most significantly, a third of them were children.

Mimi: Do you get a lot of people who are homeless? What happens then?

Susanna: There a couple of things we do for people who are in housing crisis. Our core service is the Centre House homeless shelter, where families and individuals can stay if they are homeless. Or, if they still have a home, we will work with them to try to either fix the situation, such as a landlord-tenant mediation or finding resources for grants so that eviction doesn’t occur. In some cases, we need to help people find new housing, and we maintain a housing list with a lot of resources.

Mimi: To what extent do the major property owners join in the solution?

Susanna: We do get support from a number of the major property owners. They give us financial support. We also have relationships with a number of landlords in town who help us place people. Though not everyone in town is helpful like this, a lot of the property owners in town are, and I think those good relationships are in thanks a large part to our executive director Ron Quinn’s presence in the community.

Mimi: What percentage of the unmet need do you think might be met with better collaboration among a number of the potential resources that are solutions to this problem?

Susanna: I would say that there is already a good deal of collaboration. For example, the Centre County Affordable Housing Coalition is a coalition of members that include real estate agencies, banks and mortgage companies, developers and property owners, and numerous human-services organizations, as well as government agencies that work with adults in our community.

Mimi: What’s the best first step forward to enhance the good work that’s already being done?

Susanna: The best first step is more funding. We continue to need to be able to serve and provide a variety of services that help support folks so that they can establish themselves and maintain independence.

Mimi: We have some urgent needs with people who will have to vacate their trailers, and that causes a person like me to think that we need more places with affordable rent.

Susanna: If we could somehow raise rather than reduce the amount of affordable-housing stock, then many people’s lives would be far less stressful. And I think one of the things that would be really helpful is if people let go of the misconception that affordable housing only matters to people who are low income. Affordable housing matters to everybody, no matter what their income. When a household spends more than 30 or 35 percent of their household income on housing, there’s a tremendous impact on the rest of the budget. There’s a tremendous strain there, and this is particularly true when people look at children. Safe, stable, affordable housing supports children’s wellbeing and health, and the services we provide at Housing Transitions are a long-term solution. Affordable housing — while some people think it’s really just for some sector of the population — truly benefits the entire community.

Mimi: I like to call it the workforce.

Susanna: Yes, the truth is the majority of the people we see are working, but struggling to make ends meet. I’d like to share a story about a young man that we helped recently. He came through our shelter, and he was working one part-time job and was trying to increase his hours but couldn’t, so he found another part-time job. He now works two part-time jobs for a total of 60 hour per week and is maintaining his independence. He comes back periodically to the shelter, brings us baked goods, fruit, and makes a donation to the shelter to give back to the organization to help the folks that are there currently seeking shelter like he was. I like to share this story because there’s a misconception that some people in our community just want to take whatever they can get. The majority of the people we work with are not just looking to improve their lives, but as soon as they have the opportunity, they find a way to pay it forward or to give back. He’s not the only one of our former residents who comes back from time to time with a donation.

Mimi: So, how do you think we’re doing as a community on our immediate problem? Susanna: People have really been rising to the occasion, and there’s been a lot of positive work that’s already taken place, but probably the hardest work is yet to come because as these mobile-home parks close, we’re going to need housing that people can afford — permanent replacement housing — and I don’t know that the housing stock is out there.

Mimi: You’re not going to find land in the community that they’re accustomed to, so realistically, looking at the bigger solution to the problem, the land will have to be maybe even outside of the Centre Region.

Susanna: That’s quite possible. But there are some interesting solutions taking place. For example, the Affordable Housing Coalition is moving along with plans to start a shared-housing program, where they match people who need housing with households that have space. It might be an empty nester or a widower who would like some company and maybe someone to take out his trash or help out around the house a little bit. It might be a recently divorced mother who would appreciate having a couple more adults around the house. They’re working on this shared-housing program.

Mimi: How do you do that?

Susanna: It’s complex. There’s a subcommittee that’s working on this shared-housing idea, and, of course, there would have to be many safeguards put in place. But they’re moving ahead with the idea because it has evidently worked in other communities.

Mimi: Of your $500,000 budget, what part of it is private support?

Susanna: About a quarter.

Mimi: And the other comes mostly from government agencies.

Susanna: The other comes from the United Way and government agencies, and private foundations like the Centre Foundation, and that’s where the opportunities for the community to step up are presenting themselves.

Mimi: To what extent do you collaborate with other organizations? When you say “shelter,” I somehow think of the Women’s Resource Center. Do you interact a lot?

Susanna: Yes, we do collaborate with many organizations, like the Community Help Center, Interfaith Human Services, the Food Bank, Catholic Social Services, the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, Centre Volunteers in Medicine, the Centre County Affordable Housing Coalition, and Bridge of Hope.

Mimi: I hope you continue to thrive.

Susanna: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you. I think too of the inspiration that I get from the clients we work with. I get so much more than what I give, and everyone I work with would say the same. The people we work with who spread their wings and soar as they leave our doors are very inspiring.

Mimi: That’s a good note on which to soar away! Thank you so much.

To make a donation to Housing Transitions, send a check to Housing Transitions, PO Box 1391, State College, PA 16804.

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