First Step Alliance Strays from Founding Mission

by Pam Vincent


         First Step Alliance began as many new agencies with one person having an idea and a dream to make a difference and working diligently to keep it alive. Libby Ellis began First Step Alliance in 1992 with a basic idea to help domestic violence victims obtain furniture, appliances and other essential household items when they were ready to leave the shelter and move out on their own. For most women, leaving the shelter and acquiring housing was only half the battle. Ellis was appalled that these women (often with several children) would have housing and absolutely nothing else. The feeling of isolation leading to depression was high among women or families staying in a near empty house or apartment. She’d walk into their homes and there’d be nothing there…not even a chair to sit on.

         So Ellis, armed with her own vehicle and using her basement as a warehouse, began canvassing the neighborhoods looking for usable discarded items and also getting donations from family, friends and even total strangers via word of mouth. The director at the women’s shelter gave her free rein to run the program and soon many women from the shelter, whom she had helped, were gratefully volunteering their time and effort too.

         The group of women started small with referrals and then the concept caught on; there was huge a need for this service! A writer at the Plain Dealer caught wind of Ellis and FSA and wrote an article about it. Soon Ellis was inundated with offers of furniture and goods. She quickly outgrew her basement and for obvious privacy issues, she couldn’t store any items at the shelter, so she found a warehouse big enough for her growing venture.

         Ellis was fortunate in that she had the support of family, friends and workers from the carpenter’s union as volunteers. This helped meet the huge demand for services to the needy. They also branched out and starting helping the formerly homeless and low-income housing clients obtain household items. FSA had the good fortune of getting funding from a couple of local foundations, and businesses such as Levin furniture who donated new items. This worked for a few years but foundations will only offer funding for 2-3 years and after that they expect the organization to find other sources of funding.

         About this time according to Ellis, she saw some Cuyahoga County reports and found that they were spending a great deal of money on household items for clients being placed into housing.

         To help maintain cash flow she struck a deal with the county and began providing them with the items at a discount. That funding helped keep the lights on, pay the bills, purchase additional delivery trucks and hire additional staff to meet their growing needs. They were still buying items and giving them away but, with the County now involved, it also turned the enterprise into a goods-for-money venture and what ultimately drove the organization to change the way the board chose to do business.

         When asked about the people or goals that made all the work worthwhile, Ellis said, “It would be really difficult for me to single out a person or experience at First Step that stands out – hundreds of incredible people came through First Step trying to make a new life. I could easily talk for hours about the people who touched me deeply. But I guess the most unforgettable experience for me at First Step was the kids. We saw children all the time that had nothing but the clothes they were wearing. For some, Christmas was like any other day of the year. So each time we delivered furniture to a family, we included a special package of toys and gifts for each child. The look in the eyes of those kids just tore me up every time,” said Ellis.

         FSA started working with 28 different county agencies, had 3 full time delivery trucks with drivers, a new 13,000 square foot warehouse and was making money. Up until that point Ellis had a board that consisted of her volunteer family and friends and she knew it was time to hire professionals to keep the business afloat. Initially, the new merged board worked well together but soon they wanted to make changes that Ellis was leery of. They wanted to charge for the items they were currently giving away and they wanted to charge delivery fees. Ellis and the board clashed over these changes and other changes eventually Ellis found herself outvoted. Torn over staying in an environment that was contrary to her original ideals and goals or leaving the organization she created, she chose to leave. FSA had become her life’s work, and she was devastated in having to leave in May of 2000.

         Libby Ellis stepped down and the FSA Board chose former staff employee Alan McDonald. Founding boards and staff for a new non-profit rarely survive into the second or the third stages of the organization. It is however rare for an organization to change so dramatically according to research on non-profit organizations.

The New First Step Alliance:

         Alan McDonald became involved with FSA while searching for furniture for clients that he was working at Belfair Jewish Children’s Bureau and the Independent Living Program. FSA contracted with the two organizations to act as a support agencies to get donations through her. McDonald began volunteering to make deliveries for his own clients and using FSA’s truck. When Ellis expanded her operations in1999 she offered him a job as operations manager.

         McDonald emphasized that FSA is strictly a non-profit organization. Evidently, a few former staff members question whether the agency has even lost touch with its original mission and has become a business. He says they are a furniture bank that receives donations from the community, businesses, or outlets. The number one agency and referral service in Cuyahoga County that utilizes FSA is First Call for Help.

         They are also a non-profit agency for people to call in to get tips on how they can get their needs met. FSA gets some used items donated and purchases new items for agencies that require them like The Department of Children’s and Family Services. The contract agencies buy items from FSA or FSA goes out and buys items wholesale to offer to their partner agencies at a large cost saving. FSA supplies agencies with furniture which is one way that the FSA generates revenue.
         McDonald says for the most part the items they have in their warehouse are donated to them so they try and liquidate them either: to that same source, to other agencies that don’t have funding or to the general community assistance programs. Some of the County agencies also buy items through FSA (the way it was initially set up when Ellis was director) because it can be cheaper for them to buy through FSA and the County receives better quality items and better service. This is another way they are able to generate income.
         At one point 3 years ago Interlink Early Start, which is the main supplier of services for young moms and babies under 3, starting tapping into FSA for cribs during the last days of the Ellis administration. Interlink were asking for 30-40 cribs per week. It was a huge effort to keep the supply up to the demand. They found ways to tap into the surplus resources that they were generating. They have had some success according to McDonald, but they struggle to stay true to the mission which is to bring things in to the warehouse and give them to families in transition for little or no money. In other words, one program funds the other.

McDonald claims First Step Alliance is grossly understaffed with 4 full time drivers, that they send out into the community for pick ups or deliveries and 3 office staff including McDonald. He says they have far too little staff to do what they do and they’re trying to plug some people in to cover that. They service agencies in Cuyahoga, Summit, Lorain and Lake Counties and have serviced areas as far away as Youngstown and Toledo and Lodi to the south. In 2001, they served approximately 3,000 families and they haven’t calculated the 2002 figures yet, but expect higher numbers. McDonald says that they do the best they can to reach out to as many agencies as possible and recently they contracted with Harbor Light and the Salvation Army of Lorain County. They’ll have a warehouse and both agencies have already raised funding for both the warehouse and cribs to get started. They have 2 full time volunteer staff members and are looking for more staff and board members to help with the new location.

 How to determine who gets help first?

         FSA prioritizes the requests for assistance in the following ways:

1. Children with multiple disabilities,

2. Children with one disability,

3. Next are adults with disabilities,

4. Senior or older adults and

5. Recently homeless going into permanent housing.

         The time frame for responding to a request for help can be anywhere from a day, week, or month and in some cases never. It all depends on their inventory stock and how quickly they can get items in. When asked if some clients get bumped off the list altogether because they’re farther down in rank and the demand for items are greater than the supply, McDonald admitted that sometimes that does happen.

         A few people that have directed clients to FSA is Sister Donna Hawks from Transitional Housing for Women and Toni Johnson from the Office of Homeless Service Advisory committee. Hawks only deals with FSA occasionally and uses the credit system where donations are made to FSA in Transitional Housing’s name and when her clients need items they use their credits to purchase them. She says they haven’t had any problems getting products within a reasonable time frame.

         Johnson has had a different experience with FSA. She said the clients she refers rarely get help and that FSA is inconsistent in their ability to provide service to her clients. Originally, when dealing with FSA, her clients would fill out a form telling FSA what they needed and they’d get the items for free. Now her clients have to pay and these are people going into permanent housing through the Public Housing Authority. They are starting out with nothing, have very little money and are at the bottom of FSA’s list for service.

         What really puzzles Johnson is that at a recent Public Housing Authority meeting in March, McDonald was there and told a large group of seniors moving into the Riverview facility that he could get them whatever furniture they needed. What prompted that change? Johnson thinks this is because new residents at Riverview received grant money and vouchers that can only be used at FSA and it’s a sure thing for FSA to receive payment from the County.

         FSA is not “giving” them anything…the clients in essence are buying the furniture and the only place they can get it from is FSA. McDonald claims his prices are still less expensive than any retail outlet, but Johnson says that the furniture is expensive through FSA, especially for her poverty level clients. A look at their current product list contains some bargains on couches, chairs, lamps and cutlery but appliances; both new and used are comparable to a retail store or the classified section in the newspaper.

A look at some current Prices off their Product list

1. Twin size bed sells for $150. (new only)

2.  Full size bed sells for $170. (new only)

3. Cribs are $110; Crib mattresses are $40;

4. Toddler Beds are $120.

5  New dressers are $75-$90; Used dressers are $45- $75

6. New Dryers are $340; used dryers are $175;

7. New Washers are $390; Used are $200.

8. Stoves (New) are $310; Used are $200;

9. Refrigerators (New) are $415; used refrigerators are $200.

10.Infant Car seats are $60;

11.Strollers are $60;

12. Couches are $100;

13. Chairs are $50; Lamps are $20; Cutlery is $5; Emergency delivery fee is $50; set up fee for bunk beds or cribs are $40.

         Johnson says she still reluctantly refers her clients to FSA because there’s nowhere else to send them.

Things that don’t add up

         When asked how the staff gets paid, since the agency is a non-profit, McDonald said that they do not generate enough money to meet their expenses. In 2001, FSA received $27,337 in contributions and $320,372 in sales. The organization spent $210,551 on sales and $120,779 in administration. McDonald said that the staff is paid from the income generated by delivery charges. Evidently, the delivery charges bring in enough income to pay 7 full time staff members.

         The other troubling fact from discussions with McDonald was the disconnect between receiving donated items and then selling those items. The question arises is First Step Alliance a not for profit charitable organization or are they a for profit enterprise collecting discarded items and reselling those items. Ellis asked, “How can they be considered tax exempt?” This is one of the things that bothered Ellis when the board made changes to the program and she worries that FSA has strayed far from their original mission following funding. Ellis, not an attorney, wondered if the agency had ventured into the world of commerce possibly in violation of the IRS laws governing charities.

         McDonald is the first to admit, “There is no exact science to running this business.” He stated this point many times. He also states that he is a young director who is willing to take suggestions on how to do things better or improve on what they are doing. The agency has tried to recruit professional board members even seeking the advice of Libby Ellis recently.

         A couple of the agencies cited the growth in the organization and the modification of the original focus. The agency has expanded to four counties, and never did stabilize local funding. Brian Davis, Executive Director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless was a part of the original visioning for the organization, and laments the direction that the organization has taken. “I think that First Step Alliance should embrace the original mission of providing homeless people furniture. There is nothing worse for a homeless person then to go into an empty apartment everyday, and the feeling of disconnect causes recidivism,” according to Davis. According to NEOCH homelessness and requests for shelter have increased for 18 straight years and in 2002 family homelessness increased by just over 10%.

         McDonald has a very personable demeanor with a natural gift as a salesman and an extensive back ground in working with the different agencies. He has a firm belief that FSA is helping the low income and disabled clients they serve and maybe they are…to a small extent. But, not to the extent of Ellis’s original operation. Still, he speaks highly of Libby Ellis and mentions that they would not be here without her and that she is missed at the agency. He says that Ellis had her own ideas and wanted to go in a certain direction and she was not as concerned about generating income.

         McDonald claimed that the current agency mission has a commitment to Ellis’s original mission, while Ellis claims the agency has dramatically distorted the original purpose. Former employees still keep in touch with
Ellis though few remain at FSA. Most became disenchanted with the working conditions and the long hours and left. One former driver who asked to remain anonymous complained of working 12-hour days going to and from Akron on a daily basis. It took its toll on him and he quit. McDonald admitted he’s not always easy to work for and that he can be demanding on his staff.

         Ellis has former employees asking her to start up a new program but she doesn’t want to be carrying such a huge burden any more. She has talked about advising others in constructing an organization that would provide donated items to recently housed individuals or families where furniture and household items were given away for free. She feels it’s tragic that FSA has changed into a donated goods for sale organization just like a retail store.

         The name First Step Alliance started because actual alliances were formed between groups of local agencies that serve the needy in the area. Many of the agencies which formed the original alliance are no longer served by FSA, because they cannot afford the high cost of the furniture. In a time of huge budget shortfalls and agencies struggling to keep their doors open, many in the homeless community are calling for a re-examination of the role of FSA in providing services to homeless people.

         In the end, a homeless family struggles to put first month’s rent and a deposit together, and they usually do not have the funds to pay for delivery and the cost of furniture. Many homeless people turn to retail outlets like Rental stores with high interest rates. This starts the family back on the path toward becoming homeless. FSA was begun to try and eliminate the recidivism, but now seems to cater to organizations that can pay for the delivery and furniture. This means that a homeless person or family that makes the decisions to seek assistance from a program without the money to afford the FSA prices is penalized.

 Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine Cleveland Ohio published April 2003 Issue 60