Maine Voices: Efficient and effective, Preble Street respects humanity of those it serves

PORTLAND – Our roles as stewards of Preble Street’s mission, philosophy and approach compel us to respond to a recent Maine Voices column that questions the effectiveness of the work our organization does ("Poor oversight of homeless services erodes Bayside’s quality of life," Feb. 4).

That column demands steps that were addressed and, in many instances rejected, by the Portland Homeless Prevention Task Force report.

At Preble Street, if a human being comes through our doors and asks for help, asks for food, asks for a roof over her head, we will do everything we can to help that fellow human being.

Besides these basic life-saving services, we will also provide, as do other nonprofits in this community, services to help people get jobs, find housing and reconnect with family.

We will not ask, "Well, how hungry are you?"

We will not say, "You can sleep on this mat on the floor, but only after we see a valid ID."

We will not wait weeks to get a criminal background check processed by the state before we offer a neighbor an emergency food box.

These kinds of requirements apparently feel good to some people, with some sense that to do otherwise is simply enabling people. What we’re doing is enabling people to eat. We’re enabling them to survive a freezing, scary night.

We know that the Greater Portland community shares and champions the values and work of Preble Street, with thousands of volunteers, food drives, clothing donations and financial support.

Preble Street is governed by an all-volunteer board of directors from this same community, who bring considerable and diverse professional and personal experience to their role and who take that role extremely seriously.

Like all nonprofit boards, the Preble Street board is responsible for the financial health and fiscal oversight of the agency as well as maintaining and nurturing our mission, and all of our members know what good governance is.

Just as we rely on a variety of assessments to ensure that our programs and services are achieving results, so, too, our financial well-being is frequently scrutinized.

As a private nonprofit agency, Preble Street undergoes a thorough and independent financial audit every year, and our financial statements have received an unqualified opinion from independent auditors for more than 20 years.

In addition to these audits, United Way of Greater Portland conducts a strict and thorough financial and program review of Preble Street every year and has consistently given us high marks for results that meet the needs determined by their comprehensive community assessments.

Preble Street currently has 30 contracts from various government departments — municipal, county, state and federal. Each and every one of them is competitive, includes regular and strict monitoring and evaluation and demands regular reporting on benchmarks and results.

Each of the dozens of private grants awarded to Preble Street also requires outcome reports and fiscal accounting. Preble Street has been invited to present its research findings and the efficacy of its program models in public and private forums throughout the United States.

In addition, Charity Navigator, providing independent evaluation of the financial health and accountability and transparency of 6,000 American charities, has given Preble Street its highest rating.

We invite anyone in the community to come in, take a tour and find out more about our work, and about the neighbors we are helping to lead more stable and productive lives by connecting to health and trauma services, housing and educational and vocational resources.

A recent evening reminded us not only of why we are here, doing this work, but also of how much it is needed.

On Jan. 23, when it was near zero outside, 512 people waited in line to eat dinner at Preble Street. More than 500 people, forced to sit on the floor of a jammed soup kitchen and eat off their laps.

After a chaotic dinner, these same people waited in line at the city shelter hoping for a mat on the floor.

Of course, many could not get in because the building capacity is limited, so they had to sit up in chairs all night in an empty office building.

We at Preble Street look forward to the day we can close our doors because the problems of hunger, poverty and lack of housing have been solved. Until that day arrives, we’ll keep doing our work.

Maurice A. Selinger III is president of the Preble Street board of directors, and Renee Schwalberg is vice president of the board.