Andy Helmer is chief executive officer of Shelters to Shutters, a national 501(c)(3) organization working to change the trajectory of those experiencing homelessness by providing two critical components—housing and employment. The organization was founded in 2014 by Chris Finlay, the owner and operator of a multifamily real estate company based in Virginia, and operating in multiple states.
Q: How did you get involved with Shelters to Shutters? What attracted you to the organization and its approach?
A: It happened by accident. I was taking some time off work and Chris Finlay reached out to me to see if I would head up a search to find them new leadership. At the time, I was on sabbatical from my role as a senior vice president for a technology company. After several weeks of interviewing people and getting smarter on the issues of situational homelessness, I somehow got “Jedi mind-tricked” into recruiting myself!
The mission of Shelters to Shutters has resonated with me since the beginning, and it is immensely rewarding to lead up an organization dedicated to ending situational homelessness. I also loved Chris’s vision for the organization and the fact that this was a private industry solution tackling a very serious public social issue.
Situational homelessness, if you’re not familiar with the term, is when individuals who have marketable skills and have been employed in the past find themselves without a permanent address due to a series of circumstances and bad luck. Shelters to Shutters addresses situational homelessness by helping people find employment and housing simultaneously and return to self-sufficiency.
Q: How does Shelters to Shutters work?
A: Candidates are first referred to us by our network of nonprofit partners. After going through an application and screening process, we connect our qualified candidates with our industry partners—who are multifamily owners and operators for available employment and housing at a multifamily property.
Almost 60 percent of our candidates take positions in maintenance, an area where multifamily companies traditionally have a tough time finding and keeping staff. Those with retail sales experience are often placed as leasing agents. Others begin in groundskeeping. If you are motivated, work hard and don’t mind working outside, this can be the perfect entry to groundskeeper and eventually maintenance tech roles.
The great thing about multifamily operations is that every position has upward mobility. For example, a groundskeeper can get a pool certification or a maintenance tech can get a HVAC certification, both result in a wage bump. Almost three out of four people in the program will receive a wage increase or promotion in the first 12-months. They also have the opportunity to receive continuing education through their employer.
We continue to work with participants for a full year after they have been hired with supportive case management services from S2S staff to ensure their success.
Concurrently, participants’ employers provide them with housing in their apartment buildings. Rent is typically discounted 50-70 percent for the first year, which enables participants to pay off any debts and stabilize their finances again.
Q: How have you seen Shelters to Shutters make a difference?
A: There are so many individual success stories! You can read some of them on our website. There’s one in particular that inspires me. Moma from Atlanta was living in his car, going to school and working at McDonald’s so he could use McDonald’s Wi-Fi to do his homework. Through Shelters to Shutters, he was hired by a multifamily company, acquired skills in building maintenance, and has been there for over a year. He’s been promoted and his life has taken a totally different trajectory.
Q: Talk about some of the top highlights and milestones since you became CEO.
A: We created an ongoing series of hiring events in our core cities of Atlanta, Charlotte, Houston, Nashville, and Washington, D.C., which have been a very effective way to get participants placed en masse. We invite industry partners, have them meet potential employees, and then watch the magic happen. Also at these events, we work with participants to refine their resumes and hone their interviewing skills. When one participant received this on-site support, he got five offers on the spot and free housing for the length of his employment. With COVID-19, we had to quickly pivot to virtual events.
We’ve also been helping participants get comfortable doing Zoom interviews and create “video cover letters” to accompany their resumes. Here they spend 30-45 seconds introducing themselves and talking about their skills and why they’d be a great fit for a certain position. This has been a great way to differentiate our candidates from the dozens, sometimes hundreds of resumes an employer receives for a job opening.
Q: What are some of the top challenges you’re facing now?
A: One of our biggest challenges right now is growing our network of industry partners. There is a lot of stress for multifamily owners and operators right now because of COVID-19 and the related economic impacts, such as unemployment and residents struggling with rent.
All of this affects a property’s bottom line. We’ve been trying to combat these challenges by talking to our industry partners about the long-term picture. With Shelters to Shutters, they can help their communities address the complex issue of situational homelessness while finding great employees for maintenance, leasing, groundskeeping, and beyond.
Q: What’s ahead?
A: We want to expand our job fair into more of a hiring expo and provide more services at these events, like legal aid, wellness services, even registered nurses doing things like blood pressure checks. There is a lot of room for growth, and I’m excited for the even greater impact we can make as an organization. Find more information at https://entrywaytalent.org/ (formerly www.shelterstoshutters.org.)