Pingree taps Portland homeless advocate for national award

PORTLAND — Mark Swann will know by Monday, March 12, if he will be honored by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society for his work in 21 years at the helm of Preble Street.

Nominated by U.S. representative Chellie Pingree for a prestigious national award called Citizen Service Before Self, Swann probably couldn’t have imagined such recognition when he took the executive director position at Preble Street in 1991. At that time, the organization was a patchwork staff of Swann, one other paid employee and University of Southern Maine student interns housed in the basement of the Preble Street Chapel.

"I was a really overcrowded, dark and undignified space," Swann said Monday. They struggled to meet the needs that community members came to them with, he said.

"But it had then, as it still does, a great vision, a terrific board, and it did great work."

In the more than two decades since, Swann has shaped the organization into one of the city’s bedrock social service providers, serving more than 5,000 people a year in its fight to alleviate hunger, combat poverty and end homelessness.

Swann is reluctant to take credit for the organization’s success, and the medal, if he gets it – he expects it will go to an organization with a more specific focus on veterans – couldn’t happen without his staff and the thousands of dedicated voluneers who contribute their work to Preble Street’s soup kitchens, drop-in centers and homeless shelters.

"I know it sounds cliché, but this kind of effort takes such a wide range of people to pull together, he said. "I do absolutely think of just so many people that have been involved in this organization. I get way too much credit."

But Swann "is every bit deserving of the recognition," said Avesta Housing president Dana Totman, one of Swann’s many partners from agencies around Portland.

"If there’s anyone who represents the tag line, ‘service before self,’ it’s Mark Swann," said Doug Gardner, director of Portland Health and Human Services.

Swann, Gardner said, is passionate and real, a tireless advocate for the city’s most vulnerable residents – sometimes to the point that his advocacy for certain individuals is "challenging" for the DHHS department.

Beyond the passion and drive, Swann is an excellent manager who is willing to change direction when programs aren’t as effective as they should be, Totman said.

"He’s very creative," Totman said. "And his creativity is such that when certain programs and philosophies aren’t serving the homeless well … He really looks at what needs to be done and what needs to be changed to serve people rather than simply being part of the same old programs that have been going on for years and years while leaving homeless people behind."

A big part of the agency is providing for emergency needs and running the shelters drop-in centers, Swann said, but "we’re also trying to provide solution oriented programming." 

Swann’s willingness to reshape Preble Street was visible early on in his tenure there as he led the organization into their current shelter and soup kitchen building at the corner of Preble and Oxford streets in 1993. During that move, they synthesized the city’s soup kitchens, which had previously been organized by individual churches in different location all across the city on different days, into one central location.

With a consistent place for meals, the community that needed the soup kitchens could “own” the service, Swann said. At the new Preble Street, they were no longer "just visiting."

The new building also gave the organization the space it needed to offer health care and case workers on site to get people beyond the basics of survival, he said.

"That was our sort of coming out party when we moved here in ’93," Swann said. Preble Street had emerged a "much more as a legitimate player in the social work field.”

Over the next decade, Preble Street continued to expand and add services to their roster, adding troubled youth to its list of clients in 1998.

"That was a huge step for us,” he said.

Suddenly, Preble Street had not just one building, but several, with separate staff working with youth and needing different skills and service models.

But the "aha" moment that revolutionized the way Preble Street and the city thinks about homelessness and how to fight it came in 2005 when they opened Logan Place, Swann said.

A 30-unit, permanent living facility for chronically homeless men – men who have been living on the streets for years, defying the usual arc of homelessness, which typically lasts just a few days or perhaps a few weeks – Logan Place represented a new "housing first" approach to the problem, Swann said.

The philosophy was nearly the opposite of the standard, bureaucracy-laden approach to working with the homeless, wherein individuals must register with MaineCare and often go through counseling or treatment for drug or alcohol addiction before they can be placed in a housing unit, Swann said.

Instead, Logan Place provides a home for people who have not been successful within that system, and hopes that the changes in behaviour that social workers hope to see will follow. Logan Place was one of the first facilities of its kind in the northeast and it was risky, Swann said.

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the program works. Residents generate fewer 911 calls, fewer trips to the hospital, fewer arrests and significantly lower health care expenses compared to when they were living on the streets or in shelters, according to a Preble Street report.

With just thirty beds, Logan Place reduced the city’s homeless population by 10 percent, and numbers in the other homeless shelters dropped as soon as it opened and remained low until the recession hit several years later, Swann said.

"We just saw the power of real solutions other than mats on a floor and lines at a soup kitchen," Swann said. "I think it changed the conversation around the city and state about solving homelessness."

There have been challenges, of course. The grind of figuring out how to pay for everything – Preble Street operates on budget of several million dollars a year, with about half its funds coming from private and corporate donations – is a constant worry, Swann said. The loss of 68 housing units when the YWCA closed in 2007 and “our inability to change the outcome of the loss of that organization” still eats at him, he said.

So long as Preble Street’s board of directors want him, Swann plans to stay, he said.

"I see the potential, and as an organization, we see the potential to do more," he said. "We’re driven to do that. If you’re here for a long time, you start to feel that in your bones.”

“We’re here every day whether we win awards or not, or get recognized or not. The work continues.”

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow him on Twitter: ACulleFore.