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Nonprofit Coffee Break: Kar Woo

Nonprofit Coffee Break: Kar Woo

In the Nonprofit Coffee Break video series, Nonprofit Connect President & CEO Luann Feehan sits down with a different nonprofit leader each month to chat about leadership, learning, and life over a cup of coffee. Tune in to each episode to learn from these leaders' experiences and challenges and help us highlight our sector as an important and vibrant part of our city.

Nonprofit Coffee Break is presented by FROST Media Group.

This month, we sit down with Kar Woo, President of Artists Helping The Homeless.

In one sentence, please describe who you are and what you do.
Artists Helping the Homeless seeks to reduce the need and cost of care for area homeless by filling gaps in the local safety net in order to improve outcomes and efficiency for our homeless clients and the agencies that serve them.

How did you get started working in the nonprofit sector?
I first encountered the homeless when I moved my gallery to just east of the Plaza and walked my dog in the nearby park, AHH was founded to fund a Sunday night meal in that park to fill a gap when most homeless kitchens were closed. Some would come into the store if there were no customers and over time it became a drop in center/ As they shared their stories, goals and challenges. I realized I could help them with simple acts like a meal, blanket, ride or phone call. About that time, Saint Luke's Hospital had seen non-emergent homeless ED cases triple in three years. When they arranged a meeting of homeless and emergency services, they asked their homeless patients who to invite. My name came up, so they stopped by a Sunday dinner. At the meeting, the KCMO Police reported a homeless call cost $5,390. Another conclusion was transportation was a critical need for area homeless. I figured saving just 1 call a day could equate to almost $2,000,000 a year. At the time, I was about to sign a lease to return my gallery to Johnson County. After some soul searching, I decided to put my store on hiatus for 2 years to fill the transportation gap by starting the BE THE CHANGE program using the principles learned at the meals. With funding from the Saint Luke's Hospital Foundation, the BE THE CHANGE Program launched February 1, 2010. The rides were a chance to hear more stories and identify other gaps. As we addressed those gaps by working with other agencies and providers, outcomes and efficiency improved for both our homeless clients and the agencies that serve them. We're now entering the 12th year of my 2 year project.

On what day did you feel proudest of your work?
That's tough. Was it the housewarming at Finnegan Place for the new mother who had avoided the perils of the street that included COVID by staying at our Shelter In Place? or the night a Bodhi House resident spoke for his class that included 3 other Bodhi residents receiving their GED? or when a kid that had been a homeless addict on Independence Avenue 18 months earlier handed me his grades, A 4.0 at KU? or when a long time client bought his first house? or when a friend told of jogging in an AHH t-shirt and meeting another jogger who pointed and said as they passed "they saved my son's life"? or when a Bodhi resident told KCTV 5's Betsy Webster pulling a woman from a burning apartment across the street was the right thing to do because strangers (AHH) saved his life when he was homeless, addicted and on the street? Its got to be every time one of our clients succeed.

What is the biggest challenge you face in your role?
Funding things that can be done to fill the gaps. Usually, those gaps exist because traditional sources consider them the individual's responsibility. But too often, they become barriers. For example, the respite house concept came from patients completing detox with no place to go but the street (the wait for inpatient treatment runs 4-8 weeks). When they inevitably relapsed, their hope of starting over was lost and the $3,000-$5,000 it cost for their detox treatment was wasted. At Bodhi House, people can maintain momentum by working on co-existing conditions while waiting for a bed to open elsewhere. Everyone's ultimate goal is for our mutual clients to get jobs, housing and reintegrate. Taking a wider view creates additional challenges. We work with, rather than duplicate existing programs. So we try to find new funding rather than compete with our partner agencies for traditional sources. At the same time, we are careful not take credit for the fine work they do. That creates another challenge in justifying the value of our services to funders who traditionally have measured outcomes of specific services. AHH tailors its services to the individual's needs. Our ultimate outcome, a person addressing the issues that led to or resulted from being homeless may take months or years. One of our key interim outcomes is community harm reduction such as reduced police calls. Funder understandably prefer outcomes over outputs. It's an educational process to explain that filling these gaps and removing these barriers improves coordination, communication and client engagement. And, doing that improves the collective impact of the safety net.

What is a trend you see in the nonprofit community that excites you, or concerns you, and why?
A willingness to try new ideas. I remember my frustration starting out with funders wanting 10 years results. I really appreciate the leap of faith Saint Luke's took in getting AHH going. They also realized that no single agency is responsible for homelessness and that no single organization can fix it, so they let us take a community-wide approach. That is going to be critical for our community to address social justice issues.

What is your advice for a new nonprofit professional?
Pursue your passion. When people kept asking me how I can work the hours I do, I realized that to me what I do isn't a job. I enjoy the challenges of helping people where I can and I've been blessed to be surrounded by people who help me do that. And be persistent. Not everything we tried worked out as expected right out of the box, but rather than pulling the plug, we were able to tweak them. That meant keeping our big picture goal in focus and listening to others who shared that objective.

What is your favorite place in Kansas City to grab a drink (coffee or cocktail)?
QuikTrip! We don't have an office. We meet people where they are (after all, transportation is a barrier for homeless people to access services). I'm on the go a lot. QuikTrip is everywhere and open all hours and, its coffee and prices are good.

What is your favorite Nonprofit Connect resource?
The variety of seminars and events which present an opportunity to meet and discuss with others what we have in common. I always learn something and get to meet interesting people. While Zoom meetings are safe and convenient, I'm anxious to getting back to face to face interaction.

What is your call to action for the viewers?
Try new ideas. When I told my accountant I thought I could save our community over $1,000,000 (a multiple of the program's cost) by providing the homeless transportation, he laughed out loud. We did. That was the result of bringing fresh eyes to an old problem and a willingness of those dealing with the problem to not only try, but making the new program work. Kansas City is blessed with fantastic, dedicated individuals and agencies who share the goal of ending homelessness. But homelessness and the other challenges facing our community are complex and require input from widely diverse sectors.

Connect with Kar Woo

Nonprofit Coffee Break is presented by:
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