Written by Laticia Headings

The Shelters to Shutters non-profit was born almost by accident when Chris Finlay, managing partner and CEO, Middleburg Communities, was perusing Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine looking for information about mountain biking trails. Finlay, a former Marine, was struck when he came across an article about a man who chronicled his experience of being temporarily homeless while living in Asheville, North Carolina. 

Like most people, Finlay had a stereotypical view of what it meant to be homeless. “We all see the people who are panhandling and living under the bridges in D.C., but it wasn’t until I read this article that I opened my eyes,” he says. “Most people live paycheck to paycheck, so there’s a lot of fragility in terms of a person’s ability to take care of themselves … if they have a financial catastrophe.” 

Homelessness in America is a complex issue that affects over three million people every year. Of the people who are afflicted by this crisis, a staggering 83% of them are situationally homeless. “Situationally homeless refers to individuals who have been in the work force before and have marketable skills, but through a series of circumstances or bad luck, find themselves without a place to live,” Andy Helmer, CEO of Shelters to Shutters, says. 

In fact, 70% of Americans have little or no savings at all set aside for an emergency situation and live on the brink of life-altering financial disaster, which often results in the loss of housing. Most end up in shelters, live in cars, or find themselves on the streets. 

“It’s this hidden homelessness because people are out there looking for work, they’re finding day labor, going to job fairs, trying to get back on their feet … they’re not panhandling,” Finlay says. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development categorizes homelessness into three patterns. The first, episodic, is defined as an individual who is having recurrent problems with housing. The second, situational, is a person facing a housing, health care, financial, or job loss crisis. The last is chronic, someone who has a disabling condition that leads to being homeless for more than a year or has at least four episodes of homelessness in three years.  

Moma won the immigration lottery and came to the U.S. from West Africa. He settled in Atlanta, worked the night shift at McDonald’s and lived out of his car. He enrolled at Atlanta Tech College, a partner of S2S, and with his positive attitude, found gainful employment as a maintenance tech.

Resources at a local, state, and federal level are almost entirely focused on people who are chronically homeless. Even though situational individuals represent more than 80% of all homeless people, they only receive about 20% of the available resources. 

After reading the article, Finlay, who has been a real estate investor and developer for 20 years, pondered the question: How do you get a job without an address and how do you keep an address without a job? The realization that he held the answer within his own apartment business struck him. 

By pairing displaced, hard-working individuals with jobs at his apartment properties, Finlay found the solution. “There are really qualified people out there who are looking for a hand up, not a hand out,” he says. 

Shelters to Shutters offers people who are situationally homeless two of life’s critical necessities. “We help people find both housing and employment within the apartment industry,” Helmer says. “We’re getting individuals help before they’ve gone so far down that it’s really hard to get back on their feet.”

From 2014-2015, Finlay piloted Shelters to Shutters at his properties in Charlotte, N.C., and Nashville, Tenn. Based on the success, he rolled it out to his industry peers who shared the same philosophy of empowering communities. “It’s a private market solution to a public issue,” Finlay says. “I love that as a private industry we can find a solution that makes business sense.” 

On bench (left to right) — Shelters to Shutters CEO, Andy Helmer, with founder and president, Chris Finlay. Photo by Laticia Headings.

“The multi-family apartment industry is a trillion-dollar industry in this country that is in every city and every town across the nation,” Helmer says. Demand for this type of living is largely driven by older and younger generations who want to live close to an urban center. 

An “apartment community” generally consists of 200-300 apartments in one location, sometimes with centralized amenities and a clubhouse. Depending on the size, these complexes have 6-8 people working onsite as groundskeepers, maintenance techs, property managers and leasing agents. “We’re always looking for people in our industry, it’s hard to find quality individuals who are loyal, stable, and look at it as a career,” Finlay says.

A gang member from a young age, Vonley was often in and out of jail. When his mother died while he was incarcerated, he vowed to get on a better path. He graduated from Thomas Nelson Community College, but found employment was difficult. Because of his positivity and determination, Vonley was invited to attend a local S2S where he met employers and was offered a job.

Shelters to Shutters has 44 industry partners around the country, ranging from family-owned businesses to publicly traded companies who refer potential candidates to them. The non-profit then does a background check and in-depth screening to determine eligibility for the program. “The industry partners are the ones who are providing housing and employment. Our individuals get to live where they work,” Helmer says.  

To help break down the stigma around homelessness for their partners, Helmer, who has been with the non-profit for four years, initiated “hiring events” that frequently happen throughout the year. Pre-screened candidates are able to interface in a casual business setting with industry partners who have open positions in their complexes. 

The average starting wage is $15.50 per hour and every level has upward mobility. About 72% of individuals receive wage increases or promotions. “This doesn’t have to be just another new job, it could be an entirely new career,” Helmer says. 

Individuals also receive a significant discount on their first year of rent, about 70%, allowing them the opportunity to get financially solvent again. After the first year, they generally get the standard employee discount of 20% if they choose to stay on, which many do. The overall success rate is 93% and about three fourths of individuals remain with employers after 15 months. 

Avalon Tysons Corner Apartments, an AvalonBay Community. Photo by Laticia Headings.

Shelters to Shutters also believes in empowering individuals through education. Each participant is required to take financial and continuing education classes, done mainly through their employer. “We aren’t a band-aid situation. We want to get individuals back to self-sufficiency,” Helmer says. 

“My hope is to … break down stigmas around homelessness,” Finlay says. Since it launched in 2015, Shelters to Shutters has expanded into 12 cities and impacted the lives of over 360 people. “Making an impact is really this circular equation. It’s about being more reflective and responsive to community needs, and as a result, you’re better able to serve your customers and have better financial performance.” 

“There’s plenty of opportunity for us to grow, but we want to do [it] in a way that we can continue to find success and have the support of local communities … that way, it’s a win-win-win!” Helmer says. ML

Published in the November 2020 issue of Middleburg Life.