How do we change? It’s a question that’s intrigued Ted Knoll since he began working in the field of addiction and recovery 20 years ago. Then in 1999, he was asked by members of his church in Whittier, California, to help develop a year-round homeless shelter. At the time he worked for SRO Housing, a homeless agency in Downtown Los Angeles, but had no interest in replicating Skid Row’s revolving door shelter system. He wanted to put homeless people on a path to security and self-reliance. He wanted to help them change.
The result is the Whittier Area First Day Coalition (often referred to as Whittier’s First Day), where Knoll has been executive director since 2001. He’s implemented an audacious plan based on the notion that personal growth can come from serving a greater good. Knoll first conceived of his “reciprocal community engagement” philosophy while a student in AULA’s MA in Organizational Management program. First Day can shelter up to 45 residents, as they are known, who receive healthcare and career and housing assistance for six months. In return, they are asked to volunteer throughout the city as part of a task force called First Day Angels, taking part in civic life and being of service to the community.
“When someone is homeless, they really need to go through an arc of personal change,” Knoll notes. “We create a safe environment for them to do that work. Through volunteering, the residents learn how to reintegrate into the community and realize their own intrinsic value. It becomes very empowering.”
First Day also facilitates treatment for the 50-60% of residents who struggle with substance abuse. Certified as a chemical dependency specialist, Knoll knows all too well the devastating effects of addiction. He can tell you about the alcoholic tabloid photographer who wound up living in a dumpster. Or the cocktail waitress, faced with losing custody of her child, who drank herself to death. Or the young man, hiding a painful secret, who habitually drove drunk until a judge mandated that he attend Alcoholics Anonymous. How the man stood up in front of a group of strangers and told them the one thing about himself they already knew.
“I’m Ted,” he said. “And I’m an alcoholic.”
Ted (short for Thaddeus) Knoll was born in 1945 and raised in Nanticoke, PA, a tight-knit, conservative town with a large immigrant population. By the time he was in high school, Knoll knew he was different. “When I found out I was gay as a teenager, I only knew one person in the world who was gay,” he notes wryly, “and that was me.”
Depressed and isolated, Knoll found refuge in theater, performing in high school plays and a teens-only theater group he organized himself. As a freshman at Mansfield State College, still closeted and alone, Knoll began to drink. Heavily. “When I drank, I drank into oblivion,” Knoll says. “I’ve never been a daily drinker – I’m what’s called a binge drinker. What I know now, looking back, is that repressing my identity as a gay male had a lot to do with the internal pressures that would come out in addictive behavior.”
After college, Knoll moved to Los Angeles with Mary, a woman fifteen years his senior, the mother of three children and a former dancer on Broadway. It was the early 70s, and Knoll had convinced himself that he was bisexual. He worked in the hospitality industry and continued to binge drink, until the 1972 drunk driving arrest that led to his court-mandated stint in Alcoholics Anonymous. He remained clean for ten years, until the pain of hiding his homosexuality became too much to bear. Knoll officially came out, fell into a deep depression, and relapsed for six months. He and Mary stayed together through it all, and even got married – in a gay bar.
Then in 1985, Knoll was at a friend’s birthday party when a man named Richard Cisneros sat down next to him. Their connection was instant.
“I kind of knew it when he sat down and we started talking,” Knoll recalls. “That was it. We had a date, we went out for dinner, and we’ve been together for 27 years.”
Now sober and happily partnered (and amicably divorced), Knoll went back to school for addiction studies, eventually working as a technician in a detox center. A natural leader with a keen eye for strategy (he ran for the California state assembly in 1984, as one of the first openly gay Log Cabin Republicans), Knoll enrolled in AULA’s Organizational Management program. It was there that he gained an understanding of how institutions make difficult transitions.
“AULA gave me the group level of the change process,” he explains. “It also gave me a tool set so that when I had the opportunity to do something completely out of the box, I was confident that I could do it.” When Knoll began developing a year-round homeless shelter, the Whittier police department, hospital, and community members were all against it, fearing crime and vagrancy. But Knoll persisted, armed with the leadership skills he’d gained at AULA, and inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12th step, which calls for helping others in need. Once residents began volunteering in the community, the perception of the homeless in Whittier began to change.
As did the reality. According to a 2010 evaluation by the Center for Nonprofit Management, First Day has helped 45 percent of its residents find employment, and, on average, raised their monthly income by 180 percent. Because First Day helps residents reconnect with family and find affordable housing, less than ten percent of those who leave the program return directly to the streets.
Many of First Day’s ten paid, full-time employees – including the office manager, prevention case manager/ housing manager, and certified medical assistant – started out as residents. (“The inmates really do run the asylum here!” Knoll says proudly.)
Patrick Bouchard, 66, came to First Day after living on the streets for four years when his landscaping business went under. He’s now its director of outreach, fielding calls from local business and community members requesting the assistance of residents, who have done everything from picking apples for elderly neighbors to prepping advertising packets for the Chamber of Commerce.
As a result of residents’ local involvement, the homeless in Whittier are now perceived not as “others,” but as valued members of the community. First Day even has a float in the Whittier Holiday Parade.
“You’re working side by side and the homelessness isn’t even thought of,” says Bouchard. “The residents get recognized in the community as people who are out there working to help. That counts for something when you go to look for a job. ‘Hey, I know you! I saw you working out there at the car show.’”
“There’s a stereotype of the guy pushing his shopping cart with his 40 oz. and his blankets,” Bouchard adds. “Your next-door neighbor could lose a paycheck and be homeless within a month.”
Leon Stinson, 57, is a handyman and landscaper who became homeless in 2009 after the economy collapsed. But he takes responsibility for some of the circumstances that led to his homelessness. “It wasn’t all about the government, not being able to find employment,” he concedes. “It was also problems I had within myself. When everything kind of fell under as far as me being able to maintain the rent, pay my bills and stuff like that, I went straight to drugs.”
Ten months ago, Stinson was eating at an In-N-Out Burger when he saw a homeless veteran asking for help filling out paperwork. Stinson brought the man to the veteran advocacy group Vet Hunters, which referred Stinson to First Day. Once there, Stinson found himself surrounded by a support network he’d never known before. He says he hasn’t touched a drug since. After his six-month stay at First Day ended, he was made a “team member,” receiving extended housing in exchange for doing repair work and mentoring new residents.
“First Day is like the family I never had,” says Stinson, who still bears the physical and emotional scars of an abusive childhood. “It makes me feel good to feel like I’m wanted, or even needed, maybe. I was blessed with a lot of skills and talents, and evidently it’s helping them.”
Stinson, who wears a pacemaker and receives Social Security, has just qualified for Section 8 housing assistance, and looks forward to living on his own. A year from now, he sees himself creating an “annex” of First Day, so that he can pay forward all the gifts he’s received.
“First Day has let me stay here, clothed me, fed me, given me medical care,” he says. “Anything that goes wrong with me, First Day has my back. So a year from now, I’m hoping and praying that I’ll be able to help somebody else.”
Over the past 12 years at First Day, Knoll has witnessed countless such personal transformations. He credits the Organizational Management program for helping him discover the power of community involvement to change people’s lives.
“When I had to explore my own personal ethics in one of the classes, something profound hit me,” he explains. “I realized that one of the natural conflicts in the world is the struggle between the individual and the group: the ‘I’ and the ‘we’. The purpose of the group is to help the individual, and the purpose of the individual is to help the group. And when this synergy exists, something greater than either one happens.”