History of At The Crossroads
We are well aware this this is not the most sexy stroll down the memory lane of ATC. And boy, is it wordy. Many of you will not brave the entirety of this page, and we can’t really blame you. But we felt like we wanted to share the history of ATC’s organizational development, warts and all. It’s a little all over the place, but we think you’ll emerge from it with a stronger understanding of our story.
Before it started (1994-1997)
Rob Gitin and Taj Mustapha both got their start working with homeless youth through a history class at Stanford called Poverty and Homelessness in America, taught by Al Camarillo. Rob took this class in 1994, Taj in 1996. Through this class, they both started interning at a drop-in center for homeless youth in San Jose called Youth Outreach Program.
Both Rob and Taj realized they had a passion and love for working with this population, and were most interested in the hardest-to-reach youth, the ones who were most resistant to services, or did not fit in with the existing models of services. Rob and Taj continued to volunteer or work full-time for YOP after their five-month internships ended, and went on to write their undergraduate theses on homeless youth.
In late 1996, Rob and Taj decided to apply to the Echoing Green Foundation (www.echoinggreen.org) for fellowships to start a new organization for homeless youth. They were interested in creating a program that focused specifically on young homeless people who were not accessing traditional services. Had they not gotten this fellowship, ATC wouldn’t exist. While they were both very excited about working with homeless youth, they were not sure about the idea of starting an organization. They were mostly viewing the idea as a form of self-employment. They had clarity on who they wanted to reach, and on how they wanted to approach the work, but everything else was open.
Starting up 1997-2000
Staff size: 2
Much to their surprise, Rob & Taj were awarded echoing green fellowships in April 1997, receiving $15,000 each to create ATC. They received the money in September 1997, and began working full-time on ATC at that time. They spent the first few months talking with community organizations and conducting what they called “evaluative outreach.” They met with about 30 different community organizations, learning about their work, and asking them in what neighborhood they thought the largest number of disconnected homeless youth could be found. One telling fact is that when Rob and Taj would ask about the Mission, about half of the organizations replied that there were no homeless youth in the Mission. This spoke to the fact that there was a great deal of misunderstanding and incorrect profiling about who is young and homeless.
“Evaluative outreach” meant going into any neighborhoods where they had heard that there was a critical mass of underserved homeless youth, asking young people questions, and identifying the level of need in that neighborhood. They looked at Downtown, the Mission, the Castro, Golden Gate Park, and Haight Street. They went our as early as noon, and as late as 1 or 2 AM. They were trying to determine the following:
• What types of services they should offer
• What neighborhood had the greatest need
• What time of day was the best for reaching the most disconnected homeless youth
They asked young people on the streets what services they wanted, how they wanted them delivered, and what type of supplies they wanted. The overwhelming feedback was that the youth wanted our services to be outreach based, that they wanted to be reached in a more casual manner, and that they wanted supplies that went beyond basic health supplies (at that time, most outreach was centered around the distribution of condoms, band-aids, and other harm reduction supplies). They didn’t just want outreach to be a means (getting people to come to your center), but an end in and of itself. So they decided to have our services centered around street outreach.
In picking the neighborhoods, they quickly eliminated Golden Gate Park (too hit or miss, too unsafe, too complicated), and the Haight (already had a strong homeless youth organization). They eventually eliminated the Castro because the number of youth they would see on any given night varied too much, with many nights where they saw less than 10 youth. They settled on the Mission and Downtown/Tenderloin, and decided that about 8 PM-12 PM was the best time range.
So in January 1998, they began conducting street outreach three nights a week in the Mission, and two nights a week Downtown. They held 1-to-1 counseling meetings in restaurants and cafes, and did non-client work out of our apartments. Our first year budget was $36,000. They didn’t really do much to try to build an organization. In fact, some of the clients thought that the name of our program was “Rob & Taj.”
However, about 6 months in, they realized that they had to get serious about building an organization. They had been getting a great deal of positive feedback from their youth about the value and impact of their work. And so they set about trying to figure out how to raise more money, how to hire people, and how to institutionalize their work. And for the next two years, even though it was just the two of them, they worked to try to build a real organization.
First new staff, expanding outreach (2000-2001)
Staff size: 4-5
In February 2000, ATC hired its first two staff members. We expanded outreach to four nights a week in both neighborhoods. We solidified our outreach times (7:30-10:00 in Downtown, 8:15-11:15 in the Mission). We created a staff-training curriculum, which was fairly basic. We transitioned from echoing green’s support to other foundations. Foundations made up about 85% of our support; it would stay at that ratio for about the next five years. We began to see real success with our clients, seeing a number of them move beyond the streets and start to build the lives they wanted. Yet our work was inconsistent, with too much differentiation depending on each staff member. We planned for the Taj’s departure. We built strong relationships with a few key community partners, including Haight Ashbury Youth Outreach Team, Pacific News Service, Caduceus Outreach Services, Youth Industries and Tom Waddell Health Services. We created our first volunteer roles, primarily on outreach.
ATC goes through growing pains (2001-2004)
Staff size: 5-6
In September 2001, Taj left for medical school, and soon after, ATC started to have some real struggles on a staff level. Communication was up and down. The quality of each staff member varied greatly, and there was not enough accountability when individuals did not perform their responsibilities adequately. Morale was slipping, and it was affecting the quality of our work. While clients weren’t saying anything, we knew we were not providing them with the quality of support that we could. Our cultural competency was not where it needed to be, particularly around working with African American youth. Staff roles were ill-defined. The Director was stretched too thin, and was not able to do anything more than a mediocre job in any area. His lack of management skill was hurting the staff. Despite this, our budget grew significantly, due to a few major multi-year grants. We also had our first major fundraising event thrown for us for the first time, by Avner Lapovsky, a future board member.
In 2003, ATC made some major changes in order to try to rectify the challenges it was facing. It created a Program Manager position (assumed by Lori Norcia, who had been an Outreach Counselor for two years), taking the responsibility of supervising the day-to-day direct work out of the Director’s hands. Roles were clarified and documented. New systems of accountability were created. Organizational management philosophies were clarified and implemented. ATC created a part-time development position (assumed by Molly Rhodes, who would stay with ATC for five years). However, it took about a year for things to really improve, which required some intentional staff turnover.
ATC stabilizes, improves, solidifies (2004-2006)
Staff size: 6-8
In mid-2004, ATC was at a crossroads. We had only three full-time and one part-time staff member after the turnover occurred. We hired three new individuals (Shawn Garety, Tori Talavera, and Max Del Rio), and had that hire not been successful, it could have seriously hurt the viability of the organization. This hire started a new period of health and stability for the organization, which has continued ever since.
The quality of our work immediately began to climb. The number of youth that we met with 1-to-1 doubled within a year, despite the fact that we had the same number of counselors. ATC began to develop a real consistency in its work, and our reputation on the streets grew stronger and stronger. Staff communication ceased to be a problem, and our sense of teamwork grew. Our work with Latino youth improved dramatically, and our work with African American youth slowly but surely improved. Shawn became a core staff members who is still with ATC, as is Ivan Alomar, who joined in 2005.
We revamped our staff-training curriculum, improving it significantly. We created the Community Resource Coordinator position, which would be something of a revolving door until 2009. This turnover retarded our growth in our partnerships with other agencies. Growing our individual donor base became more of a priority. Molly’s work as Development Associate helped our newsletter become a real strength. Our volunteer program started to grow and play a larger role in the organization. We invested more heavily in the professional development of our staff. We became quicker to fire people who weren’t working out. There was a sense of stability that was new to ATC.
ATC starts Board, improves staff and advocacy, gets very busy (2006-2008)
Staff size: 8-10
ATC continued to build on the success of the previous period. Our staff retention strengthened, with staff members who were a good fit making long-term commitments to ATC. More and more, staff would talk about what a special organization ATC is. The staff’s skill development grew due to enhanced structures for shared learning, and stronger management and supervision. Our cultural competency with African American youth continued to grow to the point where is some ways it had become a strength. We added an office manager position, which had to be cut in 2009.
Client demand grew significantly, in part because the word continued to spread among our clients about the value of our work. For the first time, we faced significant capacity challenges with our 1-to-1 counseling work, which hurt our level of responsiveness. Clients often had to wait 2-4 days for a meeting, whereas in the past we were usually able to meet with them within 48 hours of the request. We implemented strategies to improve efficiency, and to make sure that clients who had greater challenges scheduling appointments weren’t being discriminated against. But we realized that the capacity issues were a creative tension to be managed, not a problem that could be solved. We added three counselors who would make up the core of our counseling team over the next five years: Naomi Irvine, Brenda Covarrubias, and Kris Chance.
In 2006, ATC was invited to join the Transitional Aged Youth Task Force, a mayoral appointed committee designed to address the needs of disconnected 16-24 year olds in San Francisco. This has led to ATC having a growing voice in San Francisco around issues pertaining to all disconnected youth, not just homeless youth. ATC has taken up a leadership role in this area, and has helped enact policy changes that have improved systems and created new services for these youth. However, these changes are small compared the enormous unmet need that still exists.
During this period, volunteers went from being a peripheral part of ATC to being truly central to the organization. This was in part due to partnering with One Brick (www.onebrick.org), which became the primary feeder for new volunteers to ATC. By 2008, hundreds of volunteers were giving thousands of hours to ATC. Most significantly, volunteers took various responsibilities off of staff members’ plates, allowing them to spend more time in the direct work with our clients.
In September 2007, ATC convened an advisory board, with the intention of it transitioning to becoming our Board of Directors when we became independent. Mary Gregory, Nadinne Cruz, Avner Lapovsky, Kevin McCracken, and Lateefah Simon were the initial members. These five individuals each had a minimum of six years of involvement with At The Crossroads. Unfortunately, ATC’s independence process moved much more slowly than hoped, largely due to the Director’s lack of time to move the process forward.
In late 2007, we also engaged in a strategic planning process led by Jan Masaoka, one of the foremost experts in organizational development in the entire country. We laid out our growth plans for the next three years, which included raising salaries by 20-30% across the board, and adding 3-5 new positions. We were very optimistic about the near future.
During this period, ATC’s funding base started to shift more toward individuals. Through a concerted effort to grow our individual donor base, this went from being about 15% of our funding to being 25% of our funding. Additionally, ATC started the I Think I Can Campaign in 2008, which was a surprising success, raising $58,000 in its first year.
Budget cuts, stabilizing in challenging economy (2009-2010)
Staff size: 8
Starting in early 2008, ATC started to lose support from some of its long-term foundation supporters, largely due to the economic downturn. Some of these were expected, but others weren’t. In a two-year period, Foundation support declined more than $200,000. In the Summer of 2008, we realized that if new revenue sources were not discovered, cuts might be necessary. Additional support was lost, and in January 2009, ATC had to make cuts. We laid off our office manager, Tiffany, who had been working with ATC for a year. We made across-the-board reductions in compensation by 15%. In some cases, it was purely a reduction in hourly wages, while in others, it was a combination of wage reduction and hours reduction (from 40 to 36 hours/week).
We made the difficult decision to cut outreach from 4 nights a week to 3 nights a week. It was difficult because we didn’t want to do it, but the decision about how to cut services to correspond with the hours reduction was fairly clear. Reducing outreach would reduce the overall number of clients we would encounter, but would not reduce the depth with which we could work with our counseling clients. We chose quality over quantity, which felt consistent with ATC’s values. We feel confident that it was the right choice. We also reduced or eliminated purchasing certain supplies, which was also a disappointment to the organization and our clients. However, our clients were incredibly understanding of the changes, and reacted as well as we could have hoped for.
The staff’s reaction to the cuts was heartening, to say the least. No one complained, including Tiffany. Everyone asked what they could do to help ATC through this time, with some people offering to take a further pay cut. However, most people were hoping and, to a lesser degree, expecting that the wage reduction would last for a year or less. Once it stretched beyond a year, it started to have a small impact on morale. Incredibly, during the three years that we were at reduced salary, not a single staff member departed because of salary. We experienced almost no staff turnover, and had an extraordinary team.
We faced significant challenges around being stretched too thin, which largely due to revenue. We utilized volunteers very effectively, taking almost everything out of the hands of staff members that we possibly can. Having VISTAs (unpaid staff who give us one year) helped a lot, but we termed out of having them in 2011. We have developed an internship program to try to replace much of the functionality of the VISTAs, which has been moderately successful. Everyone on staff became stretched very thin, particularly the Director. Tori Talavera rejoined ATC as a 20-30 hr./week consultant, which alleviated some of these problems. She led the process of going independent, as well as helping with other financial, infrastructure, and program-related projects. Her addition had significant impact on the organization. The demand for our 1-to-1 services continued to climb. We could literally triple our number of available counselor hours, and within a few months we would fill them.
Fundraising was extremely challenging during this period. Our individual donor base grew, and our I Think I Can Campaign grew, but they couldn’t cancel out the foundation losses. Very few foundations seemed to be prioritizing our work. We started a fundraising hike in 2010, and it raised $20,000, with the potential for much more.
Going independent, building, and growing (2011 & 2012)
Staff size: 9.5
In November of 2010, we received our 501c3 status, and in April 2011, we fully separated from our fiscal sponsor. This felt like a momentous step forward for ATC. Leaving our fiscal sponsor saved ATC a significant amount of money (about $40,000/year), and it enabled ATC to create its own governance structure. The transition was a lot of work for the staff, but Tori did an amazing job leading the process. We have our financial and HR systems up and running, and functioning nicely.
We secured grants from six new foundations, having redoubled our efforts to find additional foundation support. While increasing the percentage of our support that comes from foundations is not where the long-term funding base for ATC lies, it is an important short-term strategy.
The best long-term prospects for increasing our revenue are in our individual donor base, and in the growth of the Campaign and related activities. Unfortunately, the Campaign has taken a significant step back from 2010-2012. It went from $100,000 two years ago, to a projected $50,000 for 2012. We are hoping the Summer SunDay Hike can increase its revenues from $28,000 to about $40,000, and we started a new biking event that is an offshoot of the Campaign, called Spinning Spokes for Homeless Folks. It raised $12,000 in 2011, and we are optimistic that we can increase that amount.
We are very optimistic about our long-term funding prospects, due to our growing support from individuals. Our mailing list has tripled from the Campaign, and we need to strategize how to get a higher percentage of campaign donors to become annual donors, and how to get people to give to their full potential.
In August 2011, we added a part time administrative assistant position, and in November, we added an Associate Director. In January 2012, after three years of reduced services and salaries, we restored both to full. This felt momentous.
Focusing on the most disconnected youth (2013-2014)
Staff size: 12
In 2013, we launched our On-The-Spot Counseling program, which has allowed us to engage in greater depth with our hardest-to-reach clients. These are youth who we have been seeing on outreach for years, but we have never been able to build a deep counseling relationship with. There are many reasons why these youth don’t deeply connect with us: mental health issues, immersion in the street hustle, fear of asking for help, distrust of services, ATC’s limited availability, etc. Our new program specifically targets these youth, offering them on-the-spot, in-the moment counseling with no wait and no barriers. We go up to these youth, ask them how they are doing, and if they want a bite to eat; if they say yes, then we take them out for food, and sit down with them, right then and there. It’s pretty simple. It is giving us the chance to build in-depth relationships with these youth, that will give them the support they need to move forward in their lives.
One year into the OTS program, the initial results are incredibly exciting. We had thought that about 50% of the target youth for OTS would want to meet; so far, about 85% have wanted to talk more with us. We are thrilled that this new format of counseling seems to really appeal to these youth, and look forward to expanding this program in the coming years.
Taking a Bold Leap Forward (2014-Current)
Staff size: 14
Over the next three years, ATC will make improvements that will transform our work with homeless youth and young adults in San Francisco,
Over the past few years, demand for our 1-to-1 counseling services has risen by more than 150%. Currently, we only have the capacity to meet with about 60 youth a week through our one-to-one counseling program, which is the primary vehicle we use for helping our clients move forward in their lives. More than 125 clients request meetings on a typical week. This is unacceptable. We need to be able to give every young person the time and the support that they deserve. In order to do so, we must expand rapidly.
Over a three-year period (2014-2017), we are aiming to expand in the following ways:
- Have our budget increase from $875,000 to $2,100,000
- Increase the number of clients we can meet with in 1-to-1 counseling meetings on a weekly basis from 60 to 150
- Increase the number of hours we spend on our On-The-Spot counseling program from 5 hours a week to 25 hours a week.
- Increase our staff from 12 to 24
- Increase salaries by 20-30%, helping ensure the longevity of our outstanding staff.
ATC has a vision. We want to see a day when every homeless youth in San Francisco has the support they need to move beyond the streets and build outstanding lives. In the next three years, we will take a bold leap forward toward accomplishing this goal.
Many things at ATC are going very well. The quality of our staff has never been stronger, and our work with clients is at a very high level. Our role as advocates for systemic change continues to grow. Our way of working with youth is becoming seen as more of a model, and we have gotten the opportunity to share our philosophy with a wider audience. Our volunteer base is very strong. We have a clear vision of where we want to go, and need to find the resources to get there. We are excited about our future, and about our ability to help homeless youth build the lives they so richly deserve.Tweet