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In 1991, when Mark Swann began work as executive director of Preble Street, he was one of two employees. The problem of homelessness was beginning to draw more attention in Portland and nationally. Swann, just a few years out of Bowdoin College, employed only a single social worker, Florence Young.
Today, Preble Street operates a women’s shelter and housing center in Portland named after Young — Florence House. The nonprofit operates two other centers for people who have experienced chronic homelessness. There are also soup kitchens, a food pantry, a shelter for teens, a street outreach program, help for victims of human trafficking, help for military veterans, and more.
Last fall, Preble Street completed a $14 million capital campaign to expand help for Mainers in poverty. The campaign, launched in 2019, paused during the pandemic — but then shifted to take on even more ambitious goals. The funding will support new initiatives, including construction of a 40-bed wellness shelter for people dealing with homelessness and complex health issues.
The nonprofit that began in 1975 with a focus on Portland now serves the entire state. And with over 250 Preble Street employees, Swann now has plenty of co-workers.
Mainebiz: Why do you do the work you do?
Mark Swann: We’re all on this planet for a very short time, and during that time we have an obligation — human being to human being — to help each other out, to support each other during a rough spell, to care for each other when times are hard. It’s been a blessing in my life to try to do that alongside a beautiful group of people.
MB: How would you describe yourself as the leader of an organization?
MS: I believe in a shared leadership model. I work closely with and rely heavily on a smart and committed board of directors and an extraordinary staff leadership team. Lots of very vulnerable people rely on us, and the work is increasingly complex. So leading alongside such capable and hardworking people makes the agency strong.
MB: In the midst of the pandemic, Preble Street had a highly successful capital campaign. What do you attribute that success to?
MS: In 2019 we looked hard and long at our ability and our capacity before we took on the campaign. Within six months we had raised over $9 million towards our then-goal of $12 million. But then the pandemic hit.
We paused the campaign, and concentrated all our efforts on expanding services, creating new shelters and programs, and doing our best to keep our clients, staff and the community safe. In the middle of all that, in the summer of 2020, we made the big decision to repurpose our Resource Center into a new 24/7 wellness shelter.
We were successful for a couple reasons, I think. One is that the work of the agency and the program goals of the campaign stand on their own. Preble Street does important work, and we do it well, and people know that. And secondly, we work relentlessly at Preble Street, at every level. Doing anti-poverty work is not for the faint of heart.
MB: Preble Street has worked collaboratively with the city of Portland and its business community over the years. How have you managed that?
MS: Simply put, anti-poverty work is far too important and complex to expect any one organization can do it alone. Partnerships and collaboration are key, but also bring their own challenges. Over the years I’d say we’ve become very adept at choosing agencies to work with that have shared values, complementary missions, and strong and capable leadership.
MB: Why do you feel the work of Preble Street is important to the business community?
MS: All of us are invested in creating a better Maine. The well-being of our entire community means we need to find solutions to the really challenging problems that affect everyone in it. Lack of affordable housing, substance use disorder, systemic racism, the opioid epidemic and economic instability are just a few.
The impact of the work Preble Street does goes far beyond the individuals who come through our doors. When we are successful the entire community benefits. For example, people with housing require far fewer emergency services, police calls, ER visits, medical transports and jail stays. People with housing mean improvements in quality of life — including employment.
MB: How far does your work extend in Maine?
MS: We have offices in Portland, South Portland, Lewiston and Bangor and our programs serve people in all 16 counties of Maine. Our Veterans Housing Services casework staff conduct outreach from York County to Aroostook County to connect veterans to permanent housing, food, health care and other critical needs. Preble Street Anti-Trafficking Services support victims of human trafficking throughout the state. Our Teen Services program works with youth and young adults throughout the state. And we recently launched the Preble Street Food Security Hub, a sustainable, collaborative approach to ending hunger in Maine.
MB: What’s one thing you wish more people understood about Preble Street?
MS: The mission of Preble Street has always been to care for people who have nowhere else to turn, to provide professional social work services to incredibly vulnerable individuals struggling with a range of health, social and relational challenges. That’s what we do. We’re also an advocacy organization, doing all we can to impact public policy as it relates to poverty, homelessness, racism and hunger.
Preble Street is just one piece of this puzzle and to find solutions to these big systemic problems, we need everyone, including the business community, pitching in and working together.
MB: How do you see Preble Street changing in the next five years?
MS: Even before the pandemic hit, we’ve been expanding the work we do in the area of health services. And from the lessons learned during the pandemic, and the new partnerships that have emerged over these past two years, I expect Preble Street will become even more closely aligned with the public health infrastructure in Maine.
We also take our role as an employer very seriously. We’re adding more training and working to maintain benefits because we understand the value of our front-line staff. We are making a change to our wage structure that increases equity, provides a significant investment in Preble Street staff, and is sustainable for the long-term health of the organization. This is the right thing to do.
MB: How do you see your role changing?
MS: If the board will keep me around, I’m excited about what comes next for Preble Street. We’ve changed, evolved and grown in many ways over the years. Some of that was intentional and planned. And some of that was a result of changing needs in our community, or because other agencies closed or shifted their missions and changed their priorities.
Recently, our work has profoundly changed due to the pandemic, and we hope to be sorting out what an anti-poverty agency looks like in the post-COVID world. We have ideas and plans about that, but doing anti-poverty work always comes with unexpected challenges. Preble Street is up for it — I’m looking forward to being part of those next steps.