Q&A: New homeless authority director wants to create unity among homeless service providers

·5 min read

One any given night, there are more than 4,000 people experiencing homelessness in Chatham County.

The Chatham Savannah Homeless Authority and its executive director are tasked with being the community's lead advocate for the homeless and network of nonprofit provider that supply immediate and longer term services (emergency shelters, job training, food and clothing, healthcare, etc.) to the homeless community.

Jennifer Darsey, Executive Director of the Chatham Savannah Homeless Authority
Jennifer Darsey, Executive Director of the Chatham Savannah Homeless Authority

After CHSA executive director, Cindy Kelley, announced her retirement in October, Jennifer Darsey of the United Way of the Coastal Empire was named to lead the authority.

Darsey sat down (virtually) with the Savannah Morning News to talk about her background, vision and hopes for the new role, which she begins on Jan. 3.

(Answers have been edited for length.)

Why did you take this job?

That's an interesting question, only because it's not just singular in nature.

So I've been with the United Way of the Coastal Empire for 11 years. I was the director out in Liberty County, so ran a lot of direct-service programs from that particular purview, but also just always had a passion for serving people.

I come from a criminal justice background, heavy in probation. I was the chief probation officer, did intensive probation and became acutely aware of the challenges that people face when they're reintegrating into communities after they have served a sentence or are placed on probation.

I also worked with a lot of these individuals struggling with homelessness or unstable housing, a lot of eviction prevention work going on, diversion work and things like that. And so that led me to... United Way of the Coastal Empire, because I wanted to be a part of the help side, and developing programs and services and helping systems that would serve people a little bit better, and be open minded about serving people holistically.

So, I am very involved in a very human-centered case management perspective, really meeting people where they're at, because there is no one cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all for homeless individuals. The things that make people homeless vary from case to case and individual to individual. Sometimes it's circumstantial. sometimes it's choices, sometimes it's background, sometimes it's mental health. And sometimes it's just a traumatic event in an individual's life that leads them and or their family members to becoming homeless.

How did your time at the United Way help prepare you for this role?

Basically, developing programs and services. In the Liberty county office, I was the area director when our community became one of the communities that was required to develop a (Continuum of Care) and develop a coordinated entry system and began working in Homeless Management Information Systems. And I guess it's been about seven years ago, when HUD (U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development) and Department of Community Affairs required that communities receiving... government funding actually had these systems built in place. And we were responsible for developing that system. So I got to work in the system from the ground up and help coordinate all those services...

But I think more recently, while at United Way in my VP role, I was asked to serve on the implementation committee for the Continuum of Care being redeveloped in Chatham-Savannah. So during COVID, HUD came in and said, "Hey, we want to help you all and assist you all with redeveloping your COC so that it is in complete compliance with Department of Community Affairs and HUD requirements." And so I was a part of that team of people, a small team, we rewrote the entire governance as well as the charter for the COC. We had great participation from the service providers. It's a huge membership group. And we kind of redeveloped it from the ground up.

What will be your first priority when you officially step into the role on Jan. 3?

I'm going to go in and observe everything that's happening.

I think it's just going to be learning and understanding the relationships in the COC with different service providers, understanding our role in the city of Savannah.

Our job is advocacy, and so how can we advocate more? How can we help bring a unified voice to homeless services, homeless service providers? And I think one of the biggest challenges — and the mayor will often mention this — is the number of tent cities we have. And it seems like a new one pops up every once in a while. And so really looking at how we can coordinate services and care for individuals choosing to live in tent communities, and just make sure they're being cared for. They're citizens of our community. They need food, they need shelter, they need to be warm when it's cold, and they need to be cooled when it's heated.

And there are people who live "homeless by choice." So we're not going to be able to completely eradicate homelessness, but will we be able to coordinate services better and more effectively? I think over time, we can always get better.

And lastly, what do you want people to know about the work you do, and Savannah-Chatham's homeless population?

That there is no one size fits all. We say homeless by definition, but what caused that individual to be in a situation that he or she or they are in homelessness? It varies from person to person.

And there's no one easy fix to the homelessness issue. It is all very, very different for every single person struggling with homelessness. And so just being open-minded, and knowing that Chatham-Savannah really does have some incredible nonprofits, incredible service providers who are working towards and through the issues of homelessness.

Zoe covers growth and how it impacts communities in the Savannah area. Find her at znicholson@gannett.com, @zoenicholson_ on Twitter, and @zoenicholsonreporter on Instagram.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: New Chatham Savannah Homeless Authority director aims to be advocate

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