Questions For. . . Paul Buttenwieser

Our town can be a tough place to live. Perhaps no one knows that better than Paul Buttenwieser, chairman of the Family-to-Family Project, an organization that provides grants to Boston-area families that find themselves homeless. We spoke to Paul about the homelessness problem, his organization’s 20th anniversary, and the Boston art scene.

How did the Family-to-Family Project get started?
We were really inspired by Jonathan Kozol’s book Rachel and Her Children, which is a book about homeless families and the plight that they are in. My wife, children and I felt that we wanted to get engaged with this. We had the idea of committing ourselves to a pilot project of working with a group of homeless families in shelter for a year and see how it went. It went very well and we decided to continue on as an organization.

There are a lot of organizations that help people find housing. How is the Family-to-Family Project different?
We work with shelters or other organizations that work with homeless families to help the families access housing. We are not suppliers of housing or social services, all of which are tremendously important. We have a focused goal to work with the families themselves to give them flexible grants that they need to get themselves out of shelter and into permanent housing. We also have developed a second mission which is to help people who are housed but are facing eviction to stay housed.

Approximately how many families has your organization helped over the past 20 years?
I think about 3,000 in the greater Boston area.

How many families do you work with in a year. Does the health of the economy have an impact on how many people apply for aid?
We work with about 200 families a year. Homelessness is as serious a problem today as it was when we started. The one new trend is that families are spending more time in shelter. When we first started, families spent an average of three months in shelter. Now they are having to stay longer to access housing. The housing subsidy programs that were in place earlier have diminished at a state and federal level.

Some of the statistics on Family-to-Family’s website are surprising. What gets these families into situations where they’re out of housing?
There are two groups of homeless people. The first is the kind of individuals that you see on the street. Many of them have problems with mental illness and substance abuse. But homeless families are by and large homeless because of economic reasons. One of our slogans is “many families are one paycheck away from homelessness.” If you lose your job or have an illness, you can with frightening rapidity become homeless. There are also families where the man is abusive and the mother and children have had to flee. We do see a lot of people, particularly immigrants, who come and crowd in so they’re not technically homeless in the sense that they’re living somewhere off the street, but aren’t in what everyone would call a home of their own.

Do any stories stand during the 20 years you’ve run the Family-to-Family Project?
We do concentrate on helping families get into housing and do the kinds of things they need to do to get a job, like training or transportation, but we are also very attuned to quality-of-life issues. We had one family we were helping in our very early years where we were able to help them with the housing, but there was a little girl who was absolutely dying to take ballet lessons, so we gave an additional grant to the family to pay for ballet lessons. Over the years, we have supplemented our housing work with that kind of thing. Trying to see if in some cases we could intervene and put a little light in the life as well.

Do you think there’s anything at the government can do at the state or federal level to make your job a little less important?
We are very involved right now in a program called Housing First, which helps people get into housing rapidly and to give them the services once they’re in the housing to help them stay there. We would like to go out of business, which is one reason we are doing this homelessness prevention part of this. We’re collaborating with the City of Boston and we would love to work with the state as well.

Is this the first celebration the Family-to-Family project has done?
It is. From time to time we’ve had little events, but this is the first large-scale benefit we’re mounting. We want to do this to raise funds for this homelessness prevention work, and to let more people know about us. We’re looking to expand our base of support and looking for young people to help us run the organization. We have a very loyal following of people who give to us annually and this dinner is aimed at people didn’t know about our organization.

You’re also known as a patron of the arts in Boston. What in the arts and music scene particularly exciting to you right now?
Well, I chair the board for the ICA, so I have to give them a plug. We’re still very excited about our new museum on the waterfront, and the ICA like all the organizations I’m working with are very committed to providing access to the arts for poor people. Art is a basic need of life as much as food, clothing, and shelter. There was a wonderful exhibit at the ICA for a day in September with photography centered on Darfur, and Physicians for Human Rights sponsored an evening devoted to that with talks and music.

The Family-to-Family’s gala dinner, “A Family Gathering” is on October 17, 2007 at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Cyclorama.