Homeless services director getting on-the-job training

Boston making rounds

his lack of experience not seen as detriment

Lauded for management ability

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

Baltimore'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 ... `homeless experience' made him more attractive to me."

Advocates for the city's homeless population, 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.

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 arrives at the $75,000- a-year job 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 six-day resource centers. One is now in the works.

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.

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.

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 on West Franklin Street.

"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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