Beth Houghton, St. Pete Free Clinic
Beth Houghton talks feeding St. Pete - and her soul - through St. Pete Free Clinic.
On this episode of SPx, Ashley and Joe co-host Beth Houghton, executive director of the St. Pete Free Clinic. Houghton has received the most shout-outs on our show to date - for good reason. Equipped as a CPA, attorney, and MBA, this local powerhouse has chosen to spend the last six years leading one of the largest non-profit organizations in Tampa Bay. Houghton has not only revolutionized the Free Clinic's services, but worked to expand its reach to the nearly 50% of the county's population struggling to make ends meet. Enjoy this look inside one of St. Pete's best non-profits, the woman who runs it, and the passion that drives her.
- Since we started SPx, Beth Houghton has had the most shout-outs of any person in the St. Pete community.
- You may not know it, but Beth Houghton is a triple threat. She has her MBA, she's a CPA, and an attorney.
- Houghton's background: She practiced as a CPA in Tampa for 7 years, then spend 12 years at All Children's as its CFO and general counsel, then took roles on various prestigious boards in the area - including Signature Bank (now Hancock), Moffitt Hospital, and Great Explorations.
- What enticed Houghton to take on the Free Clinic? "The focus of the Free Clinic is so clear. I’m so passionate about helping the poor and the working poor, and doing it with volunteers and doing it really effectively and efficiently, that it just absolutely captured my heart."
- Most of the Free Clinic's services target the working poor or ALICE (Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed). This means that they are making more than the federal poverty line but still struggling to make ends meet. Nearly 50% of Pinellas County's population falls within these confines.
- Hurricane Irma had significant repercussions for the working poor, as many people not only lost all of the food in their refrigerators and freezers, but also lost up to 5 days of income.
- The Free Clinic says they are still seeing the effects of Hurricane Irma, as families began to fall behind, they pushed off some bills to pay more pressing ones. Now the Free Clinic is working to assist in the payment of those bills.
- "That feeling of defeat, that feeling of worthlessness, that feeling that I can’t take care of myself. When I’ve had the opportunity to ask, ‘What was the most helpful thing [about the Free Clinic's programs]?’ They will mention a variety of more tangible things, but inevitably the most common response is, ‘They believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.’"
- While Houghton's role is not generally direct service, she does feel the weight of the stories clients share with the Free Clinic staff. Houghton's role is to support the staff and to be a listening ear when they begin to feel overwhelmed.
- "The men and women in our residential programs – not all, but a significant number come in after having dealt with the first 30 days of treatment for drug or alcohol issues, and so then they come to us to try to find a new normal, and we try to help them find that new normal to work, to learn how to enjoy life without drugs or alcohol, and to remake their lives in whatever way they need to."
- "I think I’ve become more aware that the cheapest and easiest way to fill a belly is with processed carbohydrates. And so, often, the poor choices we see our clients make, or those who were at lower income levels make, are just out of necessity. Lean meats and produce tend to be harder to get or more expensive, and processed carbohydrates are easier to get and stretch further.
- Food system in America: "With all of those basket of issues that they walk in with, somewhere around 50% will stay long enough and leave successfully, meaning they have a source of income and they’re moving into their own housing."
- In 2018, The St. Pete Free Clinic is moving toward Client Choice. "We are very excited about it. As we’ve studied what makes pantries work better or worse in a whole variety of ways, almost every issue or every problem that clients will identify is solved by client choice."
- Swapping and trading already occurs at the pantry, "some of that we see sort itself out literally in our lobby. People will swap. And that’s great. But we’re trying to institutionalize that in a way that will reduce waste, but also be much more respectful to folks."
- The St. Pete Free Clinic has been able to get its hands on more and more produce as they've developed partnerships in the community: "we’ve been privileged to have more and more produce available to us, both from recovering that from grocery stores as well as purchasing it directly from the farms, what’s sometimes called ‘ugly produce’, or a produce that’s not quite big enough or pretty enough for the retail chain, but it’s still very healthy."
- The Free Clinic was worried that their volunteers would not enjoy this major change to their procedures, "But we did it and our volunteers are thrilled.’ And I would say in our limited experience, that has been the case so far, largely because our volunteers wanna be doing good things, and they are thrilled to see how happy our clients are."
- "The food bank is all about logistics, and so it’s trucks going out early in the morning to pick up food, coming back in, unloading, refrigerating or freezing that food. And then our goal is to have a near empty warehouse."
- What can non-profits do better? Houghton says, collaborate more, follow national best practices, and think about consolidating.
- If Houghton could do anything in the community outside of what she's doing, she would like to be a free floating advocate and get more involved in social justice and affordable housing.
- Houghton's shout-outs? Her husband, Scott Wagman, and former city council member Karl Nurse, for his work on affordable housing.
"We treat people with tremendous respect, so it’s not just about providing food or just about providing shelter or providing medical care, but it’s the compassion with which it’s done, and I wanted to be a part of that."
The St. Pete Free Clinic provides indispensable services to local individuals and families struggling to make ends meet. Offering food assistance, housing assistance, health care, and much more. the Free Clinic is a near full-service agency – operating huge logistical programs as well as soft-skill driven social programs. As the result of this extensive mission and far-reaching service, the Free Clinic is never short of the need for volunteers or sponsors/donors.
Please see the link for volunteer opportunities above, and please join St. Petersburg Free Clinic for our 16th annual gala event —Battle of the Minds.
March 3, 2018
TradeWinds Island Grand Resort
5500 Gulf Blvd, St Pete Beach, FL 33706
Battle of the Minds is a charity fundraiser that benefits the programs and services offered by St. Petersburg Free Clinic. This event brings together the people in our community who care about our neighbors in need.
Join us for an evening of cocktails, gourmet dinner, fabulous live and silent auction items and the Mastermind Challenge, where table teams test their knowledge by competing in a challenging electronic trivia game.
To purchase a sponsorship or for individual gala tickets, click here.
"Whatever the objections are, I think first we have to start with accepting the reality that, while we provide public schools for everybody and we don’t view that as socialists or un-American in any way, we don’t provide healthcare for everyone. However we find a way to do that, we need to do that."
Table of Contents
(0:00 – 1:05) Introduction
(1:05 – 2:47) Who Is Beth Houghton
(4:09 – 5:05) Beth’s Role at the Free Clinic
(5:05 – 10:14) Serving the Working Poor
(10:14 – 13:05) Beacon House and the Baldwin Women’s Residence
(13:05 – 15:01) Witnessing Struggle on a Daily Basis
(15:01 – 17:00) Success Percentage on Program Graduates
(17:00 – 24:58) Feeding the Poor
(24:58 – 29:57) Strategic Planning and Capacity
(29:57 – 34:10) Potential Other Roles in the Community
(34:10 – 38:57) Emotional Response to Poverty
(38:57 – 41:30) View on the Health Care System
(41:30 – 43:57) Advice for Non-Profits
(43:57 – 46:07) Shout-outs
(46:07 – 46:54) Conclusion
Joe: Beth Houghton, St. Petersburg Free Clinic. Welcome.
Beth: Glad to be here! Hi.
Joe: I want to start off by saying that we do a shout-out at the end of every episode, and it’s sort of a chance for people to say, ‘I appreciate this person in the community.’ And we’ve only had one person who has ever had more than one shout-out, I mean we only have about 25 episodes in the can right now, but we’ve only had one person that’s had more than one shout-out, and that person has actually had four or five shout-outs, and that’s you. So, we’ve been looking forward to having you come on and we’ve got a lot of love flowing for you in this city.
Beth: Thanks, got a lot of friends, I appreciate that.
Ashley: I think that, when people think about Beth Houghton, there’s enigmatic quality to you, Beth, from your past life, if I could phrase it that way, being you’re licensed to practice law and finance in our city. So, they may interact with the Beth Houghton, Executive Director to the Free Clinic, but you have lived some past lives leading up to that point. Could you orient us to that journey from starting on St. Pete to where you are now?
Beth: Sure. And to me it’s not as disconnected as it might look to somebody else, but I have an MBA and I’m a card-carrying both CPA and attorney. I practiced as a CPA for about seven years doing tax work with a great firm in Tampa, and then went to All Children’s as their CFO. And when they looked at my resume they said, ‘Oh, you’re an attorney, you can be our General Counsel too.’ So, we created that position, and it was a wonderful 12 years at All Children’s, it was growing and changing, and I got to be a part of all kinds of startup projects and a whole variety of things. And then left All Children’s in ’98, and did a few different consulting things and business things, and then joined the board of Signature Bank, which was then bought by Whitney, and then is now Hancock, and got to work in another industry, which was wonderful to do, that was not full-time, but our whole board was very engaged. And one of, I think, your interviewees is Craig Sher, who became a good friend and buddy during that time, as did Dave Feaster, who I’d known for a long time before that. But during that entire time, I’d been engaged one way or the other in the community. So, I’d been on the Moffitt Hospital board and have chaired the hospital board for about 15 years. From back in the mid ‘80s I was on the Great Explorations board and active there, and in my role at All Children’s – because, well, it’s a large enterprise, it is a non-profit, I staffed non-profit boards, I staffed all of the boards as the CFO. So, one of the boards that I began working on during, I guess, 2001 maybe, somewhere along in there, was the Free Clinic board, and had been engaged as a volunteer and a donor for many years before that. And during the period before and after the bank I had various family things that went on and took some time out to be present for my father when he was ill, and a daughter who was struggling and so on. But then, there came a time when I was ready to work full-time again, and as it happened that was the time that the Free Clinic was looking for an executive director, and that struck me as exactly what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to dedicate my energies.
Ashley: So, currently you’ve been at the St. Petersburg Free Clinic for six years, part of that’s a consummate business woman, many probably watching to see your next move, very philanthropically involved in the community. And you’ve selected an Executive Director role of the Free Clinic, having a vast array of involvement in various non-profits. What was it about this cause and this mission that enticed you to take a leadership position?
Beth: The focus of the Free Clinic is so clear. I’m so passionate about helping the poor and the working poor, and doing it with volunteers and doing it really effectively and efficiently, that it just absolutely captured my heart. We treat people with tremendous respect, so it’s not just about providing food or just about providing shelter or providing medical care, but it’s the compassion with which it’s done, and I wanted to be a part of that.
Joe: And you mentioned, when you were talking about the working poor, and I think that’s something that is starting to come to the forefront of people’s attention, that there’s a huge number of people that don’t qualify a lot of times for assistance, that are right above that line, that are often living lives that are harder than people that are below that line. And I think there is an acronym, ALICE.
Ashley: Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed. And according to a recent report, it’s estimated that nearly half of our population in Pinellas County actually fall into this category. So, technically they are earning more than a federal poverty level, but are still struggling to make ends meet. How has the Free Clinic expanded their impact beyond just those that are impoverished to this growing constituency?
Beth: We’ve really always seen that population. The statistics are really helpful to us in explaining what we’ve always seen anecdotally. So, for instance, our Health Center takes care of those folks who are at 100% on the poverty line and above, because our county Health department takes care of folks who are at 100% of poverty and below. So, we’ve for years taken care of that next group of people who fall through the crack, who don’t have Medicare, don’t have Medicaid, don’t have insurance, aren’t poor enough to qualify for the county Health Plan. Similarly, the people who come to us for food are often in exactly that position. Some are in that 12% or so who were under the poverty level, but many are in that next 34-35% that, as you said, gets up to about 50% of our population.
Ashley: I spoke to a volunteer at the Free Clinic who talked about a family that came through the door four days after Hurricane Irma had hit, and it took four days for them to go to a position of being able to support themselves to needing your support.
Beth: And we’re still seeing and feeling some of that, because when you think about it, for many or most of us, we lost all the food in our refrigerator and freezers. So, that alone is something to replace. But a significant number of the people we’re talking about here, who were working, didn’t work for two days, three days, five days. And if you’re already on the edge, which these families are, you take out five days of work out of, let’s say, 20 in a month – that’s devastating. So, as October’s rent came due, and now November’s rent, there’s this, ‘Well, let’s push this bill off and pay this one that’s more pressing.’ But it will take months for some of these families to really recover, because they are that close all the time to the edge. And we see so many families all the time who are one crisis away from disaster, one crisis away from being on the road to eviction. And so, Hurricane Irma, for many of us, was a real inconvenience, and maybe we went out and bought a lot of things before the hurricane, and then we lost everything as the power went out in our refrigerator and our freezer, but no big deal. We brought out our credit card and we bought what we needed to fill in the blanks, and we continued to have income coming in. But for many of our clients, the loss of a whole refrigerator and freezer full of food is a very big deal, and the loss of three to five, to six days of work is huge. So, for somebody who is counting on, let’s say, 20 working days in a month, to lose five or six days, it is devastating for them. And so, they’re pushing one bill off to pay the other one that’s more pressing. And so, we saw immediate impact for people who needed food right then, but we also were continuing to see folks in financial crisis, for whom food pantries are one of the ways they can fill in the gaps. But we also do some assistance with things like water bills, and we see more families that need that kind of assistance as well.
Joe: And obviously, when you’re… If you have a few dollars, say $50 of disposable income in a month, and you lose 400 or 500$ worth of work time, then that’s gonna take you six to eight months of no-disposable income just to break even at that point.
Beth: Exactly, it’s a long time to catch up.
Joe: And so, that pressure, the psychological toll that that pressure can put… that ongoing on-the-brink existence can put on families. What does that look like and are you able to address that or work in that arena?
Beth: We try to fill those gaps to minimize that pressure, but as long as families are in poverty, or as long as families are on the edge, that’s gonna be an additional stressor. And I think those who look at health and the social determinants of health would include poverty as one of those determiners of health, because it just increases stress on families if that’s the constant discussion over the kitchen table, of what bill is gonna get paid this month and what bill is gonna get kicked down the road a little bit.
Ashley: I can only imagine the erosion of confidence that’s lost in perceived self-sustainability, and really the obliteration, or maybe, even more, the adoption of humility to come and ask for support.
Beth: That feeling of defeat, that feeling of worthlessness, that feeling that I can’t take care of myself. And so, when I’ve had the opportunity to ask, particularly graduates of each of those programs, ‘What did the Beacon House really do for you?’, ‘What did the Women’s Residence do?’, ‘What was the most helpful thing?’ They will mention a variety of more tangible things, but inevitably the most common response is, ‘They believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.’ So, it is that sense of self confidence and that I can really make it that we all need to hear, and we often are working with folks who just haven’t heard that much.
Joe: How do you… Obviously, when you finished the professional portion of your career, the income-producing, you were in a spot where you could do many things, and you chose to go down this path, which I’m sure is fulfilling, but you’re also exposed to a lot of misery and a lot of struggle on a daily basis. And now, doing that for, what? – six or seven years, how do you deal with that personally?
Beth: Well, the honest answer is I’m not front and center with all of that nearly as much as much of our staff is. And there are a lot of jobs at the St. Pete Free Clinic I couldn’t do, and couldn’t do very well, and I bless that there are people who do deal with those situations every day. And I remember one of our wonderful staff people who works in our We Help pantry and deals with folks who are coming in every day with crises, saying that there were days she felt like she just had toxic waste poured on her head. So, my role has probably less to do with that and more to do with taking care of them, taking care of our staff people and being mindful that they see struggle and misery, often every day. I am in awe of our case workers at our residences who can, knowing that there are a certain number of the folks who come there who will not follow through and won’t do what they need to do and won’t ultimately be successful, and yet our staff continue to believe in the next person who walks in the door and stay positive. And that, to me, is just remarkable. Because in many ways, they have their hearts broken when somebody they’ve come to support and love then doesn’t make it, or doesn’t make it this time. They may the next time.
Ashley: I love that, I love the ‘and yet’. There’s something that’s implicit in that in terms of the ongoing foundational presence of your services irrespective of outcomes. Knowing that, do you have an estimate in terms of what percentage of those that you help are able to resume or establish a new normal for them, and what typically return looks like on the other side of that?
Beth: Yeah. The men and women in our residential programs – not all, but a significant number come in after having dealt with the first 30 days of treatment for drug or alcohol issues, and so then they come to us to try to find a new normal, and we try to help them find that new normal to work, to learn how to enjoy life without drugs or alcohol, and to remake their lives in whatever way they need to. It may be reconnecting with family, it may be taking care of old credit debts, it may be criminal history that they need to deal with. So, with all of those basket of issues that they walk in with, somewhere around 50% will stay long enough and leave successfully, meaning they have a source of income and they’re moving into their own housing. People in both of those residences, I’m often asked how long they stay, and it’s sort of a barbell. They either stay for a pretty short period of time because they select out. They really meant it when they said it was time to become sober and they wanted to do that, or they were willing to follow the rules, or do the chores, or whatever, but then just couldn’t sustain it. And then others who stay, say, six to nine months, who then tend to be very successful and leave successfully. Now, of those who leave successfully, we work hard to keep track of them every three months, we make a call and try to find out how they’re doing, and often can provide some uplifting comment, if not some tangible assistance. Of those, over 80 to 90% are able to sustain an independent lifestyle for that first year. And so, if people stay they do very well.
Joe: I’m curious, dealing with food and in and around the poverty line, how has seeing the diets and the effect that those diets have had on your constituents? Does it change your view of the food system in America at all?
Beth: I think I’ve become more aware that the cheapest and easiest way to fill a belly is with processed carbohydrates. And so, often, the poor choices we see our clients make, or those who were at lower income levels make, are just out of necessity. Lean meats and produce tend to be harder to get or more expensive, and processed carbohydrates are easier to get and stretch further. So, there is an income determinant of what nutrition is gonna be, and then we all know that then that’s gonna have an impact on health, in particular conditions like diabetes, but also cardiac disease and others. And we see that across all of our programs, because we deal so much with the food side and food insecurity, but we also have a health center where we see patients who have those chronic diseases.
Ashley: And so, coming into a food pantry, currently the user experience is a host of volunteers that take the sundries that are available and create an assortment of them to hand out. And you are now in 2018, moving into a client-choice pantry, and essentially you’re eradicating any issue of waste. You don’t want somebody to come in and get kale, and ‘What am I supposed to do with this?’, and, ‘I have a four-year-old, and don’t you know…?’, all these…
Joe: I always wondered what to do with kale.
Ashley: I still, to this day, am befuddled when I find it in my grocery cart, what to do. But it was interesting to think about the concept of waste within your business, it seems like that’s one business where that’s something that’s almost an anomaly. So, talk to us about the decision to move there. You were able to get the funds to make that shift pretty quickly, congratulations on that. And I’m sure you’re excited about 2018.
Beth: We are very excited about it. As we’ve studied what makes pantries work better or worse in a whole variety of ways, almost every issue or every problem that clients will identify is solved by client choice. So, everything from, ‘I like avocados and kiwis, but I’m really not that crazy about bananas and apples,’ for instance. Well, how would a volunteer know that? How could we pack appropriately for somebody? There’s no way we could read the mind to know if you’d rather have pasta or rice. Or we would see a family with a bunch of small kids and just assume that peanut butter would be a good thing. Well, maybe not. So, some of that we see sort itself out literally in our lobby. People will swap. And that’s great. But we’re trying to institutionalize that in a way that will reduce waste, but also be much more respectful to folks, and-
Ashley: Cultural sensitivities as well, right?
Beth: Absolutely! Do I eat rice and beans, do I not? Do I not eat pork? All of those things. And to a limited way, we can respond to that if we ask our folks, as they interview now, ‘Are there things you don’t eat?’ and so on. But we’re not helping with every single choice of every item that’s put in the bags. So, we’ve been privileged to have more and more produce available to us, both from recovering that from grocery stores as well as purchasing it directly from the farms, what’s sometimes called ‘ugly produce’, or a produce that’s not quite big enough or pretty enough for the retail chain, but it’s still very healthy. So, we can provide a lot of that, but as you said, it doesn’t mean anything unless it gets into somebody’s belly. So, we can give away kale all we want, but if somebody doesn’t eat it it’s as if we never did it. And we’ve been amazed, we had done on a pilot basis just with our produce a client-choice model, and someone will choose everything, but we never know who’s gonna choose which. So, some of the fruits and vegetables that some of our volunteers are less familiar with and not as comfortable with, they’ve been surprised to find our clients were very happy to take them. Things that might be bruised, or not at their freshest, there will be people who will choose them because… we call it ‘the grandmother effect’, they’re happy to make those into a peach pie or a crumble, or whatever. And they know how to work with those, whereas somebody else who doesn’t cook as much would just look at it as a piece of rotten fruit.
Joe: It sounds like a great idea. Are dirty risks moving to that model, or does it just seem like a pretty straightforward good thing to do?
Beth: We researched it pretty heavily and talked to people across the country, and the risk we – ‘we’ meaning all of these pantries – thought they would have is that volunteers would have a hard time shifting gears, operating one way for so long and now operating another way. And they were, as we interviewed people across the country who had done this, they universally said, ‘Yes, before we did it we were very afraid that our volunteers would be unhappy, and they wouldn’t be able to make the shift. But we did it and our volunteers are thrilled.’ And I would say in our limited experience, that has been the case so far, largely because our volunteers wanna be doing good things, and they are thrilled to see how happy our clients are. And really, clients all light up if they can go in and say, ‘Here’s two bags, fill it with any produce you want that’s in here.’ Eyes will light up and kids will help pick out the fruit, it’s just a good thing. So, that was the anticipated downside, but every bit of evidence we have says it’s not a real downside.
Joe: Is there a certain number of items they’re allowed to take, or how do you…?
Beth: We haven’t fine tuned the system we’re gonna use, but those are the kinds of things that people do, it’s two off of this shelf and one off of that shelf and that sort of thing.
Joe: Got it.
Beth: So, depending on the size of the family there are those kind of limitations, but there’s also freedom across categories for people to pick the things that they would prefer.
Joe: Hopefully there will be some interesting data to be collected there as well, I think, to see what the popular foods are.
Joe: And I think that there are some nutritionists, I’m assuming there’s some large efforts to bring healthier food into the world at cheaper prices to solve that processed carbohydrate problem, and I think that will be some interesting data.
Beth: Absolutely. One of the fortunate things about recovering food, which our food bank does, and then our food bank recovers food from the large grocery stores and then distributes it not only to our pantry, but to about 50 other programs, is that the shelf stable food is not primarily what we get from those grocery stores, which makes sense. They can manage the sell-by-dates of those things. So, we tend to get more of the fresh and perishable foods that are actually healthier on balance or what is needed. So, we’re able to provide a lot of that, now we’ll be able to provide choice around that, so people get the things that they will really eat.
Joe: Which I think, ultimately, leads to you running appropriate logistics operation to deal with it.
Joe: Because you’re literally to the minute sometimes on some of that food.
Beth: The food bank is all about logistics, and so it’s trucks going out early in the morning to pick up food, coming back in, unloading, refrigerating or freezing that food. And then our goal is to have a near empty warehouse. We really wanna get it right back out to our partner agencies, or to our pantry or one of our other residential programs as soon as possible, so that it doesn’t sit around. So, it is interesting, our organization has on the one hand very person-to-person kinds of activities, with case managers working – you talk about soft skills, it’s all about that – over to trucks and logistics. So, we have a wide array of kinds of activities that we have going on.
Joe: So, you’ve done a lot, you’ve seen a lot. If you could clone yourself and take another role in the community, what would it be?
Beth: My, that’s a great question. I don’t know. Maybe free-floating advocate. I don’t get as much time as I might like for social justice advocacy, and that might be a different tack that I might take. Another might be to work with, in whatever way, the groups who are working on affordable housing. Karl Nurse and others are really beginning to make some difference and getting some traction in creating more affordable housing, but it’s a really important issue. It’s not within the competence and the capabilities of the Free Clinic, so I don’t see us becoming developers, but having dealt with real estate a bit and second-hand with my husband, it’s an area that I have a lot of interest in.
Ashley: In the Free Clinic you hired, I think it was earlier this year, of a part advocate, part real estate savant to speak with different developers and apartment complex owners and advocate on behalf of some of your constituency, I think you’ve placed nearly 70 individuals in affordable housing. Talk to us about the decision to move forward with that hire.
Beth: We kept looking at what were the barriers in our residences, in the Women’s Residence and in the Beacon House, the men’s residence, what were the things that were keeping them from moving forward. And I would say, six-seven years ago, employment was the most difficult issue, when the economy was so bad. In the last years, that has not been the greatest barrier, but finding affordable housing has been incredibly difficult. And many of our folks have either bad credit histories or bad criminal histories or both, and so it was harder for them to get past those things to be able to rent an appropriate apartment that was affordable to them and reasonably convenient to bus transportation or other transportation to get to work. And it’s really that triangle, work, transportation and a place to live that is difficult to navigate in our community. So, the individual we hired had been a case manager for us, but got a good education in the apartment world in particular, and what are landlords looking for, and how can I be helpful in smoothing the way for our residents. And one of the things that we can offer, that he can offer, is to say, ‘We’re really working with our residents before they ever come to you about what it means to be a tenant, what the responsibilities are, what do you need to do. And then if there are issues once somebody’s in an apartment, you can call me. There’s somebody here at the St. Pete clinic – we can’t do miracles, but there is somebody else who might come in and mediate the situation between a landlord and a tenant.’ And part of the sell to a landlord is to say, ‘Almost all of the people that you have as tenants are on the edge financially, but we’ve worked with the folks we’re referring to you on budget management, on learning how to budget, and we have somebody here you can call who can be assistive. And that’s not true for the other people, and if you end up with an empty unit, we can find somebody in a day and a half to be in there.’ So, it’s a strategy that’s being used by a number of the homeless providers. We’re certainly not the only one to do that. But to find a housing navigator, to find appropriate housing for people who are otherwise hard to house is helpful, and that’s why we did it.
Joe: Do you have asks of the landlords as far as terms of the lease, i.e. month-to-month, or no terms? You talked about being able to put somebody in in a day and a half, that’s a quick turnaround. And so, what do you…?
Beth: We’re really not asking them to do anything different than what they would do otherwise. What we’re really asking them is to give somebody a chance whose background might not otherwise pass muster.
Joe: I think it would have an impact.
Beth: It does.
Ashley: And from an experiential perspective, I may know that you have team members that have taken particular personal challenges, where they’ve limited their food budget to… I don’t know if it’s ten dollars a month, or something that’s really incredibly hard to fathom, and essentially put themselves in the perspective of those that you serve, and through their journey share with those that may be philanthropic, but may not yet fully connect to your case, to experience second-hand what that is like, and maybe do a little bit of gut-checking on themselves as to how they would navigate that experience.
Beth: Yeah, it’s easy to think about it in the abstract. When you start to get more tangible about ‘What would I do if…?’ it becomes very real. Or if you start to think about, ‘What if my adult daughter was in this situation, somebody I care about, somebody I love?’ the whole issue gets turned on its head and compassion tends to rise to the surface.
Ashley: And you said it earlier, we probably all indirectly have connection and contact with many people who fall in that threshold. They may not be in the position of needing an immediate service, but are really struggling to make ends meet.
Beth: Well, if you figure, as the ALICE study says, that we’re close to 50% of our population is one paycheck away or one crisis away from not being able to make their budget, we all know some of those folks. And they are in the retail stores we go to, they are serving food where we eat, they’re here and there and wherever. They’re just not sharing the struggle of their life necessarily, they’re putting on the brave face and the ‘I’m okay’ because that’s what we wanna see. But they’re there.
Ashley: When you’re inside of your healthcare clinics and you offer a variety of services, from primary care to specialty services, you talked about chronic disease, diabetes and other ailments that affect our population… I’d love your commentary, without being an entry point, on our health care system today.
Beth: Well, it’s easy to solve, Ashley. Laughs.
Beth: That’s right. Yeah, without goring every ox in the healthcare industry, from pharmaceuticals to insurance companies, to medical device makers, to hospitals, to doctors – there’s not an easy way to solve that crisis. But what I’ve seen both at the times I was at All Children’s, and certainly now, it’s just unconscionable for our country to have so many people who are insecure relative to accessing healthcare, who are uninsured or under-insured. The Free Clinic focuses primarily on adults who are uninsured, and they really have nowhere else to go. And that just shouldn’t be the case. We’re the only industrialized nation, I believe, other than South Africa, about which you can say that. There are a whole variety of ways to get there, and politicians go crazy about whether it’s single payer, everybody ought to be on Medicare, that would be the easiest way to do it, whether you adopt models that are in existence in Canada, or France, or Germany or someplace else. But however we do it, and whatever the objections are, I think first we have to start with accepting the reality that, while we provide public schools for everybody and we don’t view that as socialists or un-American in any way, we don’t provide healthcare for everyone. However we find a way to do that, we need to do that.
Joe: I know we’ve covered in pieces throughout the conversation, but it really just stacks up the stress, the poor nutrition and then not having the healthcare to deal with that just is a cycle that’s pretty unfortunate.
Beth: It is, and one impacts the other, and then that goes back and affects the first. So, there are income impacts from having bad health, for instance, the inability to work, or having more sick days that are usually uncompensated. That, then, impacts the rest of the budget that may impact food, that may impact homelessness. So, all of those things, one affects the other, that affects the other.
Joe: So, I have a few final more broad-reaching thoughts I’d love to get from you. And tapping back into your consulting, when you talked about being a free-floating advocate, I think that’s a great idea. That’s somewhere between what you do now and mayor, right? It’s kind of in the middle there. And you obviously have some history as a consultant and so, being able to go and bring wisdom to groups, and then move on to the next one. This is potentially a really highest invested use of your time, I like that idea. So, what do you think that on average, most non-profits need to do better in St. Pete?
Beth: Probably work a bit harder to collaborate, although there is a lot of collaboration that goes on. A second probably is to borrow best practices from national information. In some cases, there is some duplication, it would be helpful to collapse some non-profits. But in most cases, for one reason or another, the individual non-profits have a fairly finely tuned mission or funding source to attack whatever problem that they’re dealing with, or provide us the cultural opportunities that we have. And so, it’s easier on the outside to talk about consolidation than it is to really make it happen and do it.
Joe: What are some of the reasons – obviously, there is some what we would call legitimate reasons for those parameters that you just mentioned, but if we were to concentrate on the inefficient reasons that people don’t collaborate, are there any specific call-outs you could use? Is it simply like a fiefdom situation? Or just because the roots have been planted there, nobody wants to rip out the roots, or…?
Beth: There can be some of that. I’m not gonna call out any names.
Joe: Sure, of course.
Beth: But I think what is inevitable, but I find to be a little bit of a shame, is some of the single individual projects, that there are maybe organizations in town that work with xyz issue, someone is passionate about that issue and, instead of joining forces with what’s already there, may start a new organization that’s very small. And the inefficiency for really small non-profits is really tough.
Beth: Just the administrative pieces of filling up a paperwork and doing the IRS 990, and just those things suck up some energy. Much less the benefits that you get by being a bit bigger and having more specialized capabilities.
Joe: That’s fair.
Beth: Do I get to do call-outs to anybody else?
Joe: Oh, yeah. Well, so now we will demand a call-out. I wasn’t demanding a call-out before I met more of the type of organization, but on the other end of that spectrum, as I mentioned in the beginning of our conversation, you’ve set the all-time universal world record for the most call-outs on our show. And so, we’re all excited to hear who gets the Beth Houghton, St. Pete Free Clinic high five.
Beth: Well, it’s tough, because there are a lot of people I could think of. But I’m gonna do two. The first that I often don’t give enough credit to, my husband, Scott Wagman, who has been under the radar screen a lot more than people realize in helping a lot of different organizations in town. There’s a lot of Scott paint on things that he has paid for, and he hasn’t owned the company since 1998, but he’s paid for it anyway. And there are a lot of quasi-consulting situations that he’s had, meaning non-paid, that somebody will call and ask him to help him with this, or help him with that, and he is amazingly generous with his time. He has been very generous in helping me at the Free Clinic, he has made a big difference in American Stage and at Great Explorations. He, as Craig Sher said about me, is somebody who doesn’t have to do any of those things, but has really chosen to spend a good half of his time giving it to the community in one way or another. The other person I would give a shout-out to is Karl Nurse, who is almost termed out as a City Council person, but is really passionate and smart about his focus on affordable housing, and clearly intends to continue to work in that venue past the time that he is a City Council person. I think as a community we have just been very fortunate to have somebody with his business background and his intelligence and his commitment serving the community as a City Council person, and we’re lucky that he’s gonna go forward and continue to work with others on good affordable housing solutions.
Joe: Wonderful. It’s been a good, informative conversation. I appreciate you coming in and spending this time with us.
Beth: It’s been delightful, thank you.
Ashley: Thank you so much!
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About the host
Ashley Ryneska is the Vice President of Marketing for the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg and a founding Insight Board member at the St. Petersburg Group. Ashley believes meaningful conversations can serve as the gateway to resolution, freedom, and advancement for our city. Her passion for storytelling has been internationally recognized with multiple media accolades.