City director learns about homeless on job

Lack of experience not seen as detriment

March 12, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

The city's new homeless services director has a crackerjack resume: degrees from Yale, Princeton and Harvard Law School; stints in the foreign service in Pakistan and El Salvador; multiple fellowships.

What Joseph Alexander Boston III doesn't have is experience working directly with homeless people.

That, according to the man who hired him, only made Boston more qualified.

"We need someone with a clear track record of being able to manage and problem-solve," said Otis Rolley, first deputy housing commissioner. "His lack of direct, quote-unquote `homeless experience' made him more attractive to me."

Advocates for the city's homeless population, which is estimated at 3,000, said they are not sure what to think.

"I don't know anything about him," said J. Peter Sabonis, director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, a legal assistance provider.

Still, Sabonis said he's keeping an open mind. "I'm sure, given those credentials, he'll be a quick study," he said.

Boston, 35, knows he has much to learn. "There are a lot of bright people doing this work," he said in an interview at his Fayette Street office. "I'm approaching them from a learning perspective."

Boston comes to the $75,000-a-year job at a time when Baltimore -- his hometown -- has been called one of the 12 "meanest" cities to homeless people. The claim was made in January by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

Sabonis and others have criticized Mayor Martin O'Malley for a policy of arresting homeless people caught drinking in public or committing other nuisance crimes -- though O'Malley says police don't target the homeless. They also said he has ignored most recommendations made by a public-private task force two years ago. Those recommendations included setting up resource centers; one is now in the works.

There also is widespread agreement that the city lacks shelter space; Baltimore has 1,512 emergency or transitional beds.

Boston said it's too early for him to have specific ideas. "But broadly speaking," he said, "my agenda is really to get constituents working together." Those include business groups, advocates, police and nonprofit service providers.

On that point, he and Sabonis seem to agree. "I'd like to see them step up and take a role in truly coordinating homeless services in the city and really setting some policy," Sabonis said.

The Office of Homeless Services, he said, has acted largely as a conduit, now sending more than $20 million in state and federal grants to nonprofit organizations.

Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, has known Boston for more than a decade. They met through Boston's mother, when Embry was on the school board. Embry put in a good word for him with O'Malley.

"He's very smart, a Baltimore city guy, very energetic, experienced," said Embry.

Boston, a serious man who often stops mid-sentence to rethink what he is saying, has taken a circuitous route to his new job.

He grew up in the city's Ashburton section. Both his parents worked for the school system, his mother, Carolyn, in guidance counseling and his father, Joseph, as a teacher at Frederick Douglass High School.

Boston, who goes by "Alex," attended the private Park School in Baltimore County rather than city schools. The reason, he said, is that it offered a better education than any city middle school.

After graduating from Yale in 1988, he held a variety of jobs while working toward a master's degree in public affairs at Princeton (1993) and a law degree at Harvard (1994). His experiences taught him that he did not want to practice corporate law. Instead, he said, "I seemed to gravitate to dealing with social justice issues."

In 1994, he went to work for the Enterprise Foundation in Baltimore, where a chief goal was to improve elementary schools in the Sandtown-Winchester area of West Baltimore.

But he had an itch to travel, so he took the Foreign Service exam "almost on a whim" -- and passed. That took him and his wife Sia Nowrojee to Pakistan and El Salvador in the late 1990s, where his duties ranged from screening visa applications to planning a visit to Pakistan by then-Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.

Drawn back to Baltimore, they moved to Bolton Hill with their two young sons. While Boston commuted to a fellowship on foster care at a Philadelphia nonprofit, he became active locally. He met Rolley in January at a meeting of Baltimore's advisory Human Services Commission.

Rolley soon hired Boston to lead homeless services, a job held for five years by Leslie Leitch. She is moving to a job within the agency dealing with grants.

Sabonis called Leitch's shift "a shock." Leitch was on vacation and unavailable for comment.

Rolley said Leitch was not demoted; rather, her new assignment is a move "up and forward" and a "tap on the shoulder" for a job well done, especially in securing grants.

Since he started work Feb. 25, Boston has been meeting with service providers around the city, from the Oasis Station shelter to the Druid Heights Community Development Corp. On Thursday, he sat down with Rosalyn Branson, chief executive of the YWCA of the Greater Baltimore Area Inc., which operates a shelter.

"Excuse my ignorance," he said to Branson, "but when people walk in here, is it first come, first served?"

Yes, she said.

"Do you turn people away?"

"Every day."

As she spoke -- asking for greater feedback from the city on what works and who provides services most effectively -- Boston listened intently, scribbling furiously.

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