Open Table: A new approach to helping the homeless

Posted: Updated:

PHOENIX-- On any given night in Maricopa County, 20,000 people make their homes on streets, in shelters, or in a friend's living room.

The Valley's homeless rely on soup kitchens, social programs and churches for a hand out.

It's a never-ending cycle.

To change that cycle, it turns out - may require a completely different approach.

Meet Lavette

Lavette Hutchinson, 34, is a mother of three - JuJuan, Jaenae, and Janiyah.

When we met her in March of 2011, she was living in a transitional housing program in Mesa. Worn down by life, and living in shelters for the previous five years, Hutchinson needed a change.

"I've just been going around in circles and in circles. And it has to end. It's going to end here with me," Hutchinson admitted.

When Hutchinson was younger her family -- mother, step-dad and nine siblings-- moved around a lot, mostly from Phoenix to San Diego.

"It was a lot of welfare lines and food stamps and cash assistance."

With all the moving, it was hard for Hutchinson to keep up with school work. At a very young age she started falling behind the other kids, especially in reading.

"Everybody had to read a paragraph. So every time it started getting about one to two persons before it got to me, I would always ask to be excused."

Lavette dropped out of school altogether after the 6th grade, and never learned how to read and write. It's been the turning point and the main impetus for the struggles she faces today.

A program called Open Table hopes to change all of that.

The Open Table

Instead of helping a lot of impoverished people with their immediate needs - food, clothing, shelter - Open Table is trying a different approach by gathering a group of people to focus on just one person.

The group, a 501(c)3 non-profit, does an extensive background check on potential 'sisters' or 'brothers' as they are called - doing a criminal check, looking into their psychological issues, and assessing if they will benefit from the attention the program provides.

For example, the group does work with ex-cons, but not people who are currently in domestic violence relationships, or currently abusing drugs - because according to the group's experience, they tend to revert back to old ways of life.

After a person is selected, 12 members of the table - consisting of church members, clubs or employees of a business- meet for one hour a week, anywhere from 8 months to a year.

Each chair takes on a different roll, focusing on areas like education, transportation, finances and healthcare.

They don't have to be experts at the particular topic, but they become knowledgeable as time passes, often learning to secure donations for their 'sister/brother', so the group doesn't bear the cost.

The concept was started in 2007 by Jon Katov after he decided to run the then social experiment on a homeless man named Ernie. It was a success, and Ernie is now living independently in Kansas City. Katov hopes that by bringing volunteers and the needy together, homelessness will one day be eliminated.

"This is the 44th year of the poverty rate not changing a bit except going up... we are missing so much of the human potential," said Katov.

But reaching that potential, both for Hutchinson and the table members, will be a challenge.

In the months the group meets, Hutchinson's life is upturned, examined under a microscope and set on course.

For the single mother of three, success requires patience and humility.

"I have to learn how to read and write. That's really something I have to do," admitted Hutchinson to the Table, at one of her first meetings.

Making progress

Shortly after that, Hutchinson got a job at Wal-Mart - a big step, because just filling out an application can take a huge amount of courage.

"I always ran from jobs, and when they ask you to read something or write something, you know 'oh sure no problem' and then I walk out and they never see me again," Hutchinson confessed.

But she vows this time is different - she plans on telling her bosses that she's illiterate.

"I really want people to know that it's a disability that I have but it's not who I...  It's a disability that I have but it's not who I am," Hutchinson said, in one of the rare moments of weakness. In those few seconds, you can see the little girl in the woman - the one who never got the education she's been longing for, who - for so long - has been the backbone that has stayed stone-faced and strong for her family.

The following months are filled with appointments - getting Hutchinson's benefits in order, securing a working vehicle, and scoring free help from Kumon tutoring center.

"The, is, and, are, off, he, want..." Hutchinson said as she pointed out the words on a poster board.

Tests confirm Hutchinson's low reading comprehension.

But she's smart. Navigating life's basic tasks by recognizing words by the way they look overall.

"She can read some sight words, she can identify letters and she can put words together," said Elizabeth Reyes who donated services at Kumon.

But getting up to speed when you're working and trying to provide for a family, is difficult. And Hutchinson questions whether she'll ever learn how to read and write - much less get her GED or college education.

"I want to get my education to better myself, but at the same time to show my kids how important education is. But sometimes I wonder, 'will I really get it?' Because a part of me gave up on that, because I've been without it for so long. But a part of me - 'just hold on.' A part of me is saying 'just hold on, just be strong'..." Hutchinson admits.

Like with any challenge, there are questions - and ups and downs.

Overall, Hutchinson expressed approval in her progress towards getting back on her feet.

"I have a good job, my kids - they both have tutors. I have a new car, all the kids been to the doctor the dentist, getting teeth pulled," Hutchinson said.

The Table has also secured affordable government housing, that the family can use for as long as they want.

Before long, it's time for Hutchinson to graduate.

Transition to independence

While not all of Hutchinson's goals have been met, the official meetings conclude in October 2011 although relationships are encouraged to continue.

The group members feel like they have done as much as they can for Hutchinson, and now the rest is up to her.Table members say the experience, for them, has also been life-changing.

"Me and my family personally, we just went through a foreclosure, and you realize how close you are to being on that, the other side of homelessness," said Jerry Pieczynski.

"This is sort of gives me reason to get up every day. There's just nothing like giving back," said Kaye McComas, another member.

But the problem with programs and soup kitchens and even revolutionary ideas like Open Table - is that at the end of the day, it's the person at the center who gets to decide.

The secret

We sit down with Hutchinson for our final interview in November of 2011.

Just when it seems safe to exhale, she shares a secret she's been keeping.

"I went to work, it was a good day and I was so proud of myself because I worked six days in a row," Hutchinson explains. "Everything was good I just didn't show up the next day, and the next day after that, next day after that... I started getting a little down, why? I don't know."

Hutchinson eventually opened up that a few months after getting the job at Wal-Mart, she was offered a promotion.

"Being in customer service required a little more than doing cashiering. It may require writing sometimes or a little reading the check, or money order or returns. It requires a little reading and writing. And I did share that... very nervous. First time in my life I ever shared it," Hutchinson said of the moment she opened up to her boss and admitted the secret that's kept her running all these years.

Hutchinson wasn't fired, but she wasn't accepted with open arms either.

The promotion was never addressed again.

Soon after that, depression set in and Hutchinson, defeated - quit.

Back to the drawing board

Since then she's had a lot of time to think.

"When you have the house and you have the car and you have the job and the money, you have all these things but then you still... dealing with issues on the inside," Hutchinson said.

Suddenly a light seems to turn on in her head - that the security she was looking for in her job, house, security - typical American Dream checklist - doesn't always bring happiness.

But Hutchinson's experience begs the question - is Open Table just another failed program?

At least one employee with the City of Phoenix, said no.

"We can lose our hope by looking around and it seems like nothing is getting better and then you see what's happened in one table and everything is going to be ok. Those are the kinds of things that in this business you latch onto," said Moises Gallegos with the Human Services Department.

The City of Phoenix has partnered with the organization, with case workers helping to monitor 25 tables, and offering guidance to members.

The City has even studied the Open Table model, showing graduates in the program are 11 times better off financially than before.

Open Table, which started in Arizona, has now been expanded to California, Florida, Iowa, Texas and New York.

This summer, the program as a whole, will graduate its 120th table.

In Maricopa County, there have been 39 tables - or 39 families helped. Of those, 34 have gone on to graduate. And as of now, 32 of those were either working, going to school - or both.

So even though it appears that Hutchinson's present state - unemployed and living in government housing, is failure to many - Jon Katov doesn't necessarily look at it that way.

"We all live a two steps forward, one step back kind of life... We can’t define anybody's life, or anybody's value, or anybody's human potential by a couple of months, by a year. We can define their human potential by what we're willing to put in," Katov said.

As far as Hutchinson's table, Katov assures that because the meetings don't continue doesn't mean the relationships don't move forward.

"Our sister moved forward, our sister has invested in her the relationships with many people on that table that she can reach out to if she makes that decision," Katov said, who is also looking to help kids who are aging out of the foster system.

Grateful for the opportunity of Open Table, Hutchinson is now dealing with the issues no one can help her sort through - who she is, and who she is going to be.

Thankfully Lavette Hutchinson's life isn't a story book, written in permanent ink - but pencil.

It's not too late to change the ending.

To learn more: