Good Shepherd Alliance’s new executive director knows what being homeless is like.
John Brothers, 29, has been there himself, was raised in a family of homeless activists and launched a career working in housing projects and on the homeless issue. He is the first executive director for Good Shepherd Alliance (GSA), Inc., based in Sterling.
"I think homelessness is part of a cycle," said Brothers, a Middleburg resident for the past three years. "You need to understand things that come into play into homelessness. … It’s not too far removed from the majority of people. If someone didn’t get paid for a month, how close would they be to homelessness?"
Brothers pointed to an increase in living and housing expenses as factors that can attribute to homelessness, along with job and housing availability and a person’s living expenses that can include childcare and medical costs.
"Working in human service positions has given me perspective on homeless issues," said Brothers, who has managed public and non-profit programs for more than 10 years, mostly in the human services field. "I gained a lot of experience in a short amount of time, and I think that’s going to bid me well in my work here."
BROTHERS BEGAN his professional career managing several programs, including the Minnesota Fair Housing Association, the Community Action of Minneapolis and the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota, the state where he was raised. He moved to New York City eight years ago and worked as a consultant with the city’s Department of Corrections’ facility on Riker’s Island, along with the New York Mayor’s Office and the Administration for Children Services in New York City. He helped redesign child protective services and started several programs in housing projects in the Bronx and South Brooklyn.
In 2000, Brothers moved to Virginia, where until recently he served as a director for America’s Promise, a national program that helps create and implement policies and programs for youth. He supervised the D.C. Public Schools office that managed homeless children in the schools before taking the GSA position.
"I wanted to work on issues of homelessness in Loudoun County. I would rather work on those issues closer to where I live," said Brothers, who started with GSA on Aug. 4 to oversee a 12-bed men’s shelter in Ashburn, a six-bed women’s shelter in Lucketts and the Thrift Store in Sterling. He plans to work on fund-raising, setting the organization’s budgets and providing day-to-day management, along with establishing a network of homeless providers and strengthen the partnership with the county, which contracts out operation of a 24-bed family shelter in Loudoun.
Brothers plans to look for the assets GSA can use to provide housing and transportation for the homeless, instead of solely identifying the county’s problem areas. "My philosophy is we can fix everything in our community. The assets are already there," he said.
"He’s been here just one week, and we see how much of an asset he’ll be," said Martha Haydee Range, office and administrative assistant for GSA. "He has a lot of knowledge, and he knows a lot of people in the business. … He has the inside out."
Part of Brothers’ knowledge comes from his upbringing, he said. He and his parents and two younger brothers were homeless activists before and after they became homeless while Brothers was in the fifth grade. Their home was condemned that year, so they found another home that also was condemned before they could find permanent housing.
"It was a difficult fifth-grade year," Brothers said, adding that his family never had to live in the streets, one definition of homelessness that also includes doubling up with another family. "We had to find housing on the spot. We ate at shelters. It’s an embarrassing situation for a young child to be in."
BROTHERS LEARNED to deal with the situation and move on, he said. He was nominated president of his class in high school and earned an academic scholarship to college, graduating with a bachelor’s of arts from the University of St. Thomas at St. Paul, Minnesota in 1996 and with a master’s of public administration from New York University in 2000. He is working on a second master’s in social policy.
"We believe that Mr. Brothers has experience as a community organizer, a social researcher and extensive experience with homeless shelters in several different states," said Mark Gunderman, vice-chairman of the GSA board.
"He’s dynamic. He’s innovative," said Joyce "Joy" Trickett, who chairs the board. "John is the big rabbit running around double energized. He’s going to be part of the great commission of Good Shepherd. He’s going to lead the flock."
Brothers said, "Every day I’m impressed by the work the staff and volunteers do. They make a lot out of a little."
Brothers’ wife of two years Arlene helps administer the theater program at the Hill School in Middleburg. Brothers founded the Middleburg Area Youth Center, a youth and family center, and is board chairman for Stand-Up for Kids DC.
"He has a quiet energy about him," Range said. "That’s when you get the effective type of people."