Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.
Print Email

Mobtown Beat

Poor Tax

Anti-Poverty Agency Faces Hard Times of its Own

By Molly Rath | Posted 10/17/2001

Based on the rumors trailing in the wake of the Center for Poverty Solutions (CPS) hiring a new chief executive and putting its million-dollar Charles Village headquarters up for sale, the still-nascent nonprofit is either heading in a new, revived direction or sputtering to stay alive.

According to former and current center staffers, both bits of scuttlebutt are true. The evidence, however, weighs heavily in favor of the latter, underscoring the challenges the new leadership will face in the winter months ahead, when demands for emergency services peak and the state legislature disburses its ever-shrinking pot of social-service-program dollars.

But if the current uncertainty around CPS raises questions about its future, it also throws a spotlight on its past and the thinking that went into its creation. The center was formed by a merger of the Maryland Food Committee and Action for the Homeless, an attempt to meld separate, well-known campaigns against hunger and homelessness into a broad attack on poverty and its root causes. The intent was to create a single, powerful anti-poverty juggernaut. But organizers failed to foresee logistical and cultural hurdles that sources familiar with CPS say have shaped its current woes. Nixing the old names eliminated brand recognition, a key to successful fund-raising. What had been two specific, distinct missions became one that was sweeping and, ultimately, fuzzy. And the two organizations' very different cultures never blended to become one.

Against the foreboding backdrop of an ailing economy and the redirection of charitable dollars following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the organization must now rally to raise public confidence and private money--a lot of it.

"Anti-poverty work generally is struggling in the wake of the Sept. 11 disaster. But even before that things were tough," CPS vice president Ralph Moore Jr. says. "We're maintaining a lot of our programs, but it's been very, very tough to rely on the public's support."

Several others close to CPS, many of whom requested anonymity, are more blunt: The organization whose mission is eradicating poverty in Maryland is itself living hand-to-mouth.

The merger plan was hatched in early 1997, the idea being that hunger and homelessness were symptoms of a larger ill and could not be treated in isolation of each other. Over the course of a one-year "affiliation period," the Maryland Food Committee and Action for the Homeless combined administrative operations, and vetted each other's finances. The union became effective July 1, 1998, and the new organization took over the hunger group's offices at 2521 N. Charles St.

For the better part of three years the coexistence appeared to be healthy, with CPS sponsoring numerous outreach programs and establishing a vocal presence in Annapolis, lobbying for funds and pushing aggressive anti-poverty efforts. Signs of internal flux appeared this past February, when CPS chief executive officer Rob Hess, the longtime head of Action for the Homeless, left for an out-of-state job. Board member Harriet Goldman became acting CEO. In April, the center's chief financial officer also left, after only six months on the job, in pursuit, Hess says, of a "better opportunity." May brought the first visible signs of financial distress--a major budget cut (from $5 million-plus a year to $4.3 million) that spurred a staff reorganization. Goldman says four programs were cut, about a dozen positions were eliminated, and two employees were let go. And in August, CPS' building went up for sale.

But if CPS' troubles seem sudden, interviews with former and current associates suggest the center was troubled from the start.

"I spent eight to nine years very active with Action for the Homeless; I was on the executive committee at the time the merger was being discussed," says Steve Gilman, a former CPS board member. "But once the merger was completed, I just felt that it was not an organization in its newer form with which I desired to be involved. I have nothing particularly good to say, so I choose not to say anything. I think the fact that I resigned should be clear enough."

Soon after the merger, fund-raising "began to get tougher," Hess says. The Center for Poverty Solutions name was unknown; its direct-mail campaigns brought in less money than the two parent organizations had collected, and CPS fell far short of its fund-raising projections. For an organization that relies on private donations for half its funding, the shortfall was devastating. The shifting leadership compounded the problem, Hess says--supporting foundations assumed a wait-and-see approach to funding the center further.

"It's always been tight" at the center, Hess says, but that CPS has reached the point of selling off its biggest asset causes particularly "grave concern." At the same time, he says, he is heartened by the arrival, eight months after his departure, of a new CEO, Alma Roberts, who spent the early '90s in charge of fund-raising at Baltimore's former Liberty Medical Center and comes to CPS from a senior vice president's post at Detroit Medical Center in Michigan.

Moore and Goldman decline to specifically address CPS' finances; asked about stories circulating in the social-services community that the center is having trouble paying its bills, Goldman simply says, "We have worked with our vendors and are meeting our commitments." As for the building sale, she says CPS' leaner staff only needs half the current 26,000-square-foot space and that the sale could generate money to create new programs that better serve CPS' anti-poverty mission. (The building, a brick two-story storefront adjacent to the Afro-American building, is listed at $1.2 million.)

Like Hess, Goldman attributes CPS' fiscal straits in part to its name. "It sounds like a think tank," she says. "We may look at it again."

The name was chosen deliberately to underscore the notion that the Center for Poverty Solutions was not simply an amalgam of two separate organizations. "By eliminating the names we thought we'd probably be able to bring the cultures together better," Hess says. However, some sources say the hunger and homelessness groups simply never meshed, creating a rift that further weakened CPS.

Internal problems appeared even before the merger became official. During the "affiliation period," the top job at the Maryland Food Committee was open, and Douglas Miles, then the hunger group's program director, applied. Action for the Homeless head Hess was named CEO of both groups, and Miles resigned in protest, rejecting an offer of the No. 2 post. According to May 1997 articles in The Sun and The Baltimore Afro-American, a consultant retained by the Maryland Food Committee recommended against Miles because he was unwilling to step down as pastor of the 300-member Koinonia Baptist Church in Barclay to devote himself to the job full time. Miles maintained he was passed over because he is African-American, a claim supported by Maryland Food Committee board member and local civil-rights leader the Rev. Marion Bascom Sr. and most of the hunger agency's staff, according to the press accounts.

As CPS took shape, its executive ranks shaped up as disproportionately white, exacerbating tensions left over from the Miles debacle, one employee says. While CPS did bring in a consultant to try and improve staff diversity, another source says, the center never directly addressed those underlying tensions.

Goldman says long-term strategizing to solve CPS' fiscal woes is on hold until new CEO Roberts arrives Nov. 1. (Roberts could not be reached for comment.) "We're waiting for her to help us develop a strong strategy, both with the public and private sectors," Goldman says. "She has some background in that area."

Meanwhile, Goldman expresses cautious optimism for the future, noting that plans are in place for CPS' annual Chocolate Affair fund-raiser in February. The board is hoping to generate $120,000 from the event; last year it raised $80,000. "We feel we've done the appropriate controls and have our budget in line . . . and will be able to manage the organization soundly," she says.

Related stories

Mobtown Beat archives

More Stories

In Need of Assistance (4/7/2010)
The state is implementing new ideas to process social services applications but there are still lags

Welfare Wireless (12/16/2009)
TracFone Wireless offers free cell phones in Maryland, possibly tapping into new customer market

DHR Says Data Used to Rank Maryland is Outdated (12/3/2009)

More from Molly Rath

Bare Market (2/20/2002)
Heeding Customer Complaints, Health Department Shuts Down Oft-Cited Grocery

History Lesson (2/13/2002)
Ex-Juvenile Offender Loses Prospective Job After Appearing in CP Article

Shackled (2/6/2002)
Why Maryland's Juvenile-Justice System Is Set Up to Fail Baltimore's Poor Young Men

Comments powered by Disqus
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter