Jessica Berg became executive director of the Lodestar Day Resource Center, a one-stop service center for the homeless, in 2006. She came to Phoenix in 2005 as a National Urban Fellow, a fellowship that is part of a graduate program at Baruch College in New York City. Berg mentored with Maricopa County Manager David Smith.
Also in 2005, the 12-acre Human Services Campus for the homeless opened less than a mile east of the Capitol. Lodestar is a main anchor, along with the shelter run by Central Arizona Shelter Services. The county played a big role in financing and planning the campus as well as Lodestar, now a separate nonprofit entity. A year after Lodestar opened its doors, Smith asked Berg to step in as interim executive director. She ended up taking the job permanently.
In a interview with the Arizona Capitol Times, Berg talked about Lodestar’s mission, what drew her to Maricopa County from New York, her previous career as an art therapist and Lodestar’s Friday afternoon dances.
What is art therapy?
Instead of just talking, the clients are doing artwork to express themselves and work through concepts. There’s a lot of unconscious material that comes up in their artwork, so it gives the therapist and the client a lot to chew on, work on.
What was it that drew you to the mentorship program in Maricopa County?
What enticed me so much more was that they were building a homeless campus, which I just thought was wonderfully revolutionary. I’ve always been pretty passionate about ending homelessness as a societal issue.
It always struck me as just so incomprehensible that living in DC, in New York, that we just step over homeless people on the street. I can’t understand how we let that happen as a society. So I was struck by the homeless campus.
I was also really blown away by the county org chart What struck you about the organizational chart?
It looks nothing like a typical organizational chart. It is brightly colored and it is bubbled. At the center of it is a big bubble that says “citizens of Maricopa County,” and then you have different departments and teams around it. It was a very team-based chart.
I wanted to work for an organization that thought like that – that thought in bubbles rather than ladders.
How did you become executive director at Lodestar?
The county hired me at the end of the internship after I finished school. I was supposed to be working on the Arizona Meth Project, and my first day, I heard that the director of LDRC was leaving and moving and that they weren’t sure what they were going to do.
I sat down with David Smith at 9 o’clock in the morning, and he said:
“Well, your services have been requested already to serve as interim director of LDRC.” I really fell in love. It’s really an amazing feeling. I never left. So now I work for the Lodestar Day Resource Center, not the county.
Starting out that first year, were there changes needed?
I think mostly just enhancing the collaboration within the LDRC, as well as on the campus. They had done an amazing job of working on co- location.
Well, having all the agencies locate here. I mean there are about 10 agencies inside the LDRC and five more on the campus itself.
But no one had really planned the collaboration, and we still are – you know, no one’s done this before. I wanted to enhance communication about clients and policies and all kinds of things like that. Things like security affect all of us. And so we have weekly meetings now with the security-operations team.
Security became more important, no doubt, after a CASS worker was shot and killed by a resident last February.
A few things came out of that. One of them was obviously straight security. What are we doing? What are we going to do better? And the other thing was, the need to talk about the care that we give people.
We need to approach every person assuming that they are in a fragile state of crisis. And our first job is to help them calm down and feel welcome and feel safe.
So when a homeless person walks through the door at the resource center, what can they expect?
They come into a large dayroom space, and there’s a front desk that the LDRC staff runs, and we really do want to make sure that our staff is compassionate and welcoming and informed as possible. The first thing that I think we need to do in helping clients is reminding them of their self-worth and giving them hope that they can change their lives – dignity, respect.
People walk in so beaten down. It’s not like they can necessarily walk in and say, “Hey, I’m ready to get a job. I need to see DES. I need this. I need this …” They don’t know what they need.
You have a dance every Friday afternoon?
We have the Friday afternoon “happy hour,” just creating joy for people, encouraging them to get up and move their body. And we have yoga and we have a piano-music program, and we’ve had theater before and creative writing.
We have the new transformational learning center, TLC. It’s a living room-type feeling. And books of inspiration, education and travel and really urging people to think and envision a better life for themselves.
You have an in-house 12-step program to help addicts dry out?
The New Arid Club was something we established. Addiction is such an overlooked problem. And it’s so misunderstood. You can’t just stop drinking, stop drugging. It’s a huge process of reprogramming your brain, so we’ve provided a safe space for people to work on their sobriety.
You share this building with different agencies?
Yeah, we’re sort of the landlord of the co-op, which is challenging because I don’t know if co-ops usually have landlords, so we have an interesting role.
But Community Bridges is here. They’re substance-abuse counseling. St. Joseph the Worker is here, employment services. CASS Employment, another employment agency. The Ecumenical Chaplaincy for the Homeless does mostly IDs, as well as other services. Southwest Behavioral Health Services, People of Color Network, that’s substance abuse and mental health.
You said this campus – the Human Resources Campus for the homeless – is unique.
There are a handful of one-stop centers around the country, but it’s a new idea. And people are just now really realizing what the one-stop center is. There are so many barriers for people.
Apparently there was a study done in California recently where a homeless person might spend 37 hours waiting in line. It’s a full-time job. You know, to get a bus ticket, go here, pick up that, go get your ID before you can get your government benefits. It’s really a new way of providing services.
You say you’d like to end homelessness. That’s a tall order. Can you give me an example of how this could be done?
Well, I think, one almost easy solution to try is a method of dealing with homelessness called housing first. There are some cities and communities that are doing a great job with it. But instead of having shelters for someone, they have an apartment. It’s so much about restoring dignity – is what we try to do – and it’s very hard to do that when people often have very little in their lives, very little support, and they’re sleeping on a two-inch piece of vinyl and foam.
Do people outside the campus know what the Lodestar Day Resource Center is?
No, CASS has the grand recognition. I mean they’ve been around for a long time. Everybody knows what a shelter is. And I think a lot of the things we provide, like mail, like a library, yoga – people don’t traditionally think of as something that homeless people need. They think they need shelter and food, which of course they do, but they’re people. We all need a lot more than shelter and food in our lives.
The word “lodestar” is a guiding star used as a point of reference in navigation to find directions. It serves as a model of inspiration or guiding principle.
It’s also air-conditioned in here. It must be nice for the homeless just to have a place to come in out of the heat.
Especially in the summer, we serve as more of a refuge. Our guidelines, our rules change a little bit in the summer. We are a heat- relief station. We provide bathrooms, air-conditioning and water to everyone.
It’s a big draw the summertime?
Yes. It’s very, very crowed in the summer, several hundred people at a time.
What about funding?
Most of the programs are volunteer-led, and our funding is very well diversified, thank goodness, among government, foundations, private and income from agencies that are just here paying, contributing toward building costs.
We also have the Get-Going Café – it’s just a little canteen, but that’s another thing that we sell stuff at half price, stamps, batteries, snacks. People use cash. Or people can also use Get-Going coupons they can earn for helping out on the campus or doing good work on their case plan, things like that.
And they also have really pleasant interaction with the staff and volunteers at the café. A lot of people are even fearful of going into a thrift shop, and being looked at and social interaction, so they practice that as well. In any case, that also brings in a little income for us.
Do you get any state funding as well?
Definitely. We’re sort of still waiting to hear what is going to happen. We’ve had a program with the Arizona Department of Housing for the last three years, which helps people get into housing and provides some assistance with a security deposit, and DES helps fund a follow- up program, and we’re really unsure if funding will continue or not.
When I’ve spoken with folks in the past few months, from the government agencies, they just really don’t have any information for me, and we’re still waiting. Some of them don’t know if they’re going to have jobs, if their departments are going to exist in a few months.
So there’s not a lot they can tell me right now.
Helping the homeless must be an uphill battle. Do you have success stories?
Tony, who was homeless on and off for years. We found his potential and really believed in him, even when he was so down. His alcoholism kept pulling him down, and he really took responsibility for it and has really found himself. He’s now a Vista volunteer. He wants to create programs that help with race relations on campus and wants to help inspire people. He’s a regular at the New Arid Club and goes to 12-step meetings. And he just moved into a community house, you know, a regular house but there’s a few folks moving in, sharing living quarters.
There’s another Vista volunteer right now who says he came to the New Arid Club for the first time to see what he could steal. And now he’s a year sober, he’s had his warrants cleaned up. He’s incredibly smart.
He’s got custody of his kids back. He’s in housing.
The U.S. Postal Service threatened to close the post office for the homeless that you run out of Lodestar. That’s no longer the case?
Instead of the $36,000 that we were getting, we’re now getting $24,000 – however, that’s something, and the contract was always so different.
We didn’t realize this, but it was so unusual that they were just trying to keep a low profile for us. And now, they’re using it as an example of a social service. I think it was a result of a lot of media attention. And, in fact, almost losing it, we have an even better relationship with the post office.