“I’m just in awe that there’s a place like CHiPS. When I came here, I thought, I could live in one of these studios!” Three months into her new job as the director of CHiPS’s Frances Residence, Sharon Lewis is still marveling at her good luck.
It’s a chilly January morning, Sharon is huddled next to a space heater in her tiny office, a large scarf wrapped around her neck. “I have a cold,” she apologizes, but it’s clear that even being sick in a drafty workplace doesn’t dampen her enthusiasm. “I love it here. It’s safe, and in a great community. I’m amazed by the generosity of this neighborhood. When the holidays were coming up, people were calling every day, asking if there was anything they can help us with, anything the mothers need. Sometimes New Yorkers get a bad rep, but not here in this neighborhood.”
As if to prove her point, the phone rings. It’s a mother asking if her eight-year-old daughter can volunteer. Sharon thinks the girl might be too young for CHiPS, but she quickly rattles off the website address and phone number of an organization that specializes in placing families who want to volunteer together. Immediately after that, a high school student calls asking if he can volunteer and Sharon forwards the call to another CHiPS worker to take down his information. “See what I mean?” she grins.
From a struggling single mom to director of the Frances Residence
Before landing at CHiPS, Sharon was the deputy administrator at Homes for the Homeless, a private city-subsidized organization that provides rooms for hundreds of families in the Bronx and Queens. But 30 years ago, like the young mothers at Frances Residence, Sharon was a struggling single mother herself, just trying to get a better life for her child.
“It’s a funny story,” she smiles. “Back then, I was making minimum wage and living with my parents. Guys from Homes for the Homeless would come in to buy supplies at the store where I worked. I was always trying to find a better job, so I got them to give me an application to work there. When my father drove me over to drop it off, we saw a lot of police activity, and he said, if you want to apply for a job at that crazy place, and anything happens to you, it’s on you. It will never be said that I was the one who took you there. That’s a madhouse! And he drove right back out.”
Sharon laughs at the memory. “I wasn’t scared. I’m from the developing world, I’m used to it. When you’re young, you’re fearless. So I went there again to have an interview with the building operations director. He agreed to meet me and then he had me waiting an hour during my lunch break. The next day, I went there at 9:00 and waited two hours. After the third time – I’m very persistent – I called him and left a polite message: It is very unprofessional of you not to keep your appointments, so you can keep your job, and then I hung up. Five minutes later he called me back and said, I love your spunk! I need people like you in a place like this!” Sharon was offered the job. It paid more than she was making, and she wanted it badly. But she told them, “My child is my first priority and going to school is second, but if you can work with me and my schedule, I’d be honored to work for you.”
And work she did. Two weeks after she started organizing boxes in the warehouse, they were so impressed she was asked to work in the building operations director’s office. “I wasn’t a secretary,” Sharon says, “but I did everything a secretary would, and shortly after I was asked to apply for the secretarial job upstairs.” Sharon was worried because she didn’t know how to type, but the deputy administrator at the time – Denise Scaravella, now the executive director at CHiPS – wasn’t. She knew a great employee when she saw one. Sharon took a typing class and she and Scaravella worked together at Homes for Homeless for 22 years.
A role model to the moms
Her own work story makes her a credible advisor to the residents at CHiPS. To new mothers seeking jobs, she says: “Be honest. Be yourself. Be persistent and don’t take no for an answer. You always follow up. Something didn’t sit well, you didn’t feel right about something, there’s nothing wrong with picking up the phone and saying, hi I was there yesterday…and address it. Be polite. Everything in life is negotiable. It doesn’t matter what it is. Do not be intimidated. Everyone is just a person like you.”
Sharon’s skill and emotional intelligence helped her climb the ladder quickly at Homes for Homeless. But working in such a grim environment eventually took its toll. “The shelters are the pits.” She heaves a deep sigh. “At Homes for Homeless, maybe 80% of the people there are hardcore, meaning they have been in the shelters second and third generation. It’s difficult to motivate them to leave, because they have a sense of entitlement that’s hard to overcome. And I had to take whoever the city gave me. After 28 years of it, I was tired.”
“It’s energizing for me to work at CHiPS,” she states. “It’s not a typical agency – it’s a buffer. A woman just comes here for a little while. It’s a safe, clean, drama-free environment where she can have her baby, get help with resources, go back to work, find daycare and housing leads and voila – she’s on her way. Our rule is that once the baby turns three months the mother must either be going to school or working, compared to the shelters where you can stay indefinitely.”
Now, Sharon can interview people and be more selective because CHiPS doesn’t get subsidies from the government. Sharon gets about five calls a week for potential residents. “We have some spots open but I’m just waiting for the perfect fit. I need a person who will be ready to be out of here in a year.” So far, Sharon has chosen three new residents out of a possible 12. First, she asks a few questions over the phone. She finds out if they have a public assistance case, which is required. “They get $283 dollars, and that money comes to us. That’s all we collect from them to pay the rent.” Usually, after talking to someone for five minutes she can figure out if they are a fit or not. “I’m looking for someone who has been employed,” she explains. “If you’ve had a job, you’re used to making your own money and you’re going to miss that. You don’t want to constantly navigate the public assistance system – it’s really treacherous. Once you’re used to paying your own way, you can’t wait to get back out there and work.”
But it’s not just about a candidate’s work history. Sharon looks at body language and asks revealing questions. “I might say to a young woman, so, when there’s an issue with your public assistance case, how do you resolve it? Because I know there’s always issues with public assistance. And maybe the young woman will say, oh yeah, they’re always messing up my case.” Sharon holds out her hands and shrugs. “Now I’m thinking: you’re not a fit for us because you have a sense of entitlement. But another young woman might answer, oh that’s why I need to get my life together because I don’t have the patience for public assistance. And that young lady, I see that she can’t wait to get back into the workforce, she just needs a little bit of help to get there.”
Sharon does the initial interview, and then, if she feels that someone is a perfect fit, Denise will interview the candidate and make the final decision. Once a new resident is settled in, Sharon meets with her privately once a week to find out what her needs are regarding daycare, housing and jobs. “I search for leads for them,” Sharon says. “I have my own contacts. It’s easy for me. I just pick up the phone and say, hey send me some information.” She certainly does make it look easy. In the last couple of months, she’s seen three residents move on to permanent housing.
It’s not just about getting the leads, though; consistency is key. Sharon doesn’t wait for her weekly meeting date to check in. It’s in her nature to help people. “If I see a young mom in the hallway, I’m going to ask her, hey what happened with that job interview? I feel like these young ladies are my children. I have a daughter around the same age, so I know what it’s like to constantly motivate a young person. I speak to them about budgeting, anything to help them be self-sufficient. Honestly, it’s not like work. It’s just a pleasure. I feel like I’m at home. I get attached – especially to the babies!”
Seeing the hard work pay off
Sharon feels fortunate to be able to track the women during this exciting time of their lives. “They come in here pregnant, and over the weekend, I call and say what did I miss? Did so-and-so have her baby? Did she go into labor? As soon as she’s back here I’m bringing up lunch and checking on her.” Sharon says she is still feeling her way around and getting things organized. Today, she is revising the intake packet for new mothers to make the information more relevant and clear.
At CHiPS, Sharon sees the happy results of her efforts, versus the vicious cycle of homelessness she witnessed at other shelters. “If you’re born into a family who’s been getting public assistance all their lives and there’s always food on the table, most of the times you end up with that sense of entitlement. Watching these families, it makes you wonder, how do you change that thought process? You can’t reach out to the adults; they’re already gone. So I feel the only way to change that cycle is to get to the children. And it’s through education and exposure, so they can see that there’s another way.”
Helping the young mothers at the Frances Residence get back on their feet is the first step. Under her watch, Sharon hopes that the only sense of entitlement these babies will have is what all babies in this country are born to have – life, liberty, and a permanent roof over their heads.