Visible Light

A rainbow of options for 1,500 imperiled youths a year

by Will Lindner

spectrum1117In 2003, Mark Redmond was hired as executive director of Spectrum Youth & Family Services, founded in 1970 to address shelter needs of at-risk youths. He has carved a place of respect for himself and the organization he serves.

Each year, on a night in March, the “homeless” population in Burlington and its surrounding communities swells by 200, maybe 300 people. These additional people don’t really qualify; they are business people, professionals, teachers, social service workers; some bring their older children with them.

The locus of this event, originally, was the wintry lawn of the Unitarian Church at the top of Church Street, but “the Sleepout” has grown to incorporate athletic fields, high school campuses, and people’s backyards, and the participants now include students and teams of coworkers from businesses and banks.

“This isn’t winter camping,” emphasizes Mark Redmond, executive director of Spectrum Youth & Family Services, which organizes the event. No tents, and a bare modicum of provisions of any kind. It’s a crash course in homelessness, and while there is certainly camaraderie at the outset, festivity dissipates as the clock creeps toward midnight and the tedious hours thereafter.

“It gets miserable. If you sleep an hour you’re lucky,” Redmond says. He or his staff members engage with participants at every site about why people — particularly those in Spectrum’s client demographic, in their teens to early 20s — end up on the street: family dysfunction, addicted parents, falling through the cracks in the mental health system, certainly poor choices in some cases. Redmond will sometimes ask, “Do you ever think a kid could end up homeless because they tell their parents they’re gay and the parents kick them out of the house? I know a lot of kids that’s happened to.”

In 2013, Nicole Ravlin, co-founder of the Burlington public relations firm People Making Good, slept out. A Boston native, she had seen plenty of homeless people. “But this experience really educates you about the circumstances people are in; they haven’t had a meal, there are noises, people walking by; they’ve had to move around all night to stay safe; they’re exhausted.

“One night is not like being homeless,” she concedes, “but this really resonated with me. It’s something I’ll take with me forever.”

That night Ravlin raised $4,000 for Spectrum, for that’s what the Sleepout is — a fundraiser. People solicit sponsorships. Last March the Sleepout brought in $360,000.

Spectrum’s other annual fundraiser is “The Empty Bowl.” It’s a soup-kitchen spinoff supported by local restaurants, with an auction in which people outbid each other for everyday items that will go not to themselves but to Spectrum’s youthful clients. This year’s Empty Bowl, on October 12, raised $67,000.

Both fundraisers, Redmond says, are powerful and successful because “they relate to the things we do.”

Spectrum’s drop-in center is on Pearl Street, right near the Unitarian Church lawn. “We feed free lunch and dinner there to 20, 30, 40 kids every single day. There’s donated clothing available; kids can use the showers, do their laundry. We have eight beds upstairs. We hire young staff, AmeriCorps workers, because these kids haven’t had good experiences with adults, so it’s welcoming. And the Community Health Center, another nonprofit, has a clinic right in our building.

“We’ve done bike rides, like many nonprofits. But now our fundraisers really relate to our mission. That’s what really strikes people.”

It takes constant ingenuity on Spectrum’s part to create avenues of outreach to reach people who, any civilized society would agree, should not be left abandoned and imperiled. Redmond estimates that the organization assists well over 1,500 youths each year.

They’re not all homeless, but they are in crisis. Spectrum’s modest administrative building on Elmwood Avenue is also its counseling center for mental health and substance-abuse issues. The UVM Counseling Center provides graduate interns, who often hire on with the organization after they’ve earned their degrees.

“We see hundreds of kids who may have nothing else to do with Spectrum. They might even be from well-off families. It’s often addiction, and we know that underneath the addiction there’s often some kind of mental health diagnosis — like bipolar disorder, anxiety, schizophrenia, depression — so unless we treat both those things we’re not going to make a lot of progress.”

But Spectrum can hardly make headway on other objectives, such as getting kids back into school, or applying to college, learning how to find and hold steady jobs, budgeting their income, if they’re on the streets. So in addition to its eight beds at the drop-in center, Spectrum has a house on Maple Street with nine apartment units, and another on Pearl Street with eight units. Clients can stay for two years, paying a third of their income (however limited that might be) for rent.

These facilities add up to 25 beds. But, Redmond laments, “They’re all full. Somebody called me recently: ‘Mark, I know this 18-year-old kid; he’s homeless; he’s sleeping in an abandoned building; it’s going to get cold soon.’ I call my intake coordinator and he says, ‘I know the kid; he’s number 10 on the waiting list.’ It’s awful!”

Redmond, however, appealed to Bishop Christopher Coyne, and as of November 6 Spectrum will have 10 more beds at its disposal through the winter at St. Joseph’s Co-Cathedral on Allen Street.

This kind of outreach and collaboration has been the hallmark of Redmond’s leadership since he arrived in 2003, after having served in various capacities, from fulltime volunteer to administrator, at youth shelters and similar programs in New York City and Stamford, Connecticut.

Spectrum was founded in 1970 by a consortium of community members and organizations who recognized the growing need for a shelter for at-risk youths. While the program has a laudable history, its relations with the community and with the city police department had largely soured by the early aughts, according to Yves Bradley, who works now with Pomerleau Real Estate but owned a Body Shop on Church Street in 2003.

“Mark got to town,” Bradley recalls, “learned of Spectrum’s problems with the merchants, and heard that ‘Yves, the guy with the Body Shop’” was particularly aggrieved. They met repeatedly, and Bradley found Redmond more than receptive to healing wounds and finding ways to unite business owners, police, and the community at large in the effort to rescue lost, troubled youths.

“Mark’s leadership is responsible for making Spectrum what it is today,” Bradley insists, “the preeminent service organization in Chittenden County. He listens, he’s open to dialogue and new ideas. He’s truly a remarkable human being.”

Redmond returns the compliment. “Yves Bradley turned out to be the best friend we ever had. He’s done the Sleepout, he donates money, and he’s encouraged other businesses to come along, too.”

Redmond, 60, a Long Island native, had no expectation of entering social services when he excelled in his business courses at Villanova University, then took a job on Madison Avenue. A friend persuaded him to volunteer at Covenant House, a shelter for homeless teenagers in then-crime-ridden Times Square, and his experiences there proved more meaningful to him than the world of finance. After several, often dangerous, posts he earned a master’s degree in public administration from New York University.

When he applied for the job at Spectrum in 2002, he was living in Yonkers with his wife, Marybeth, and their 4-month-old son, Liam. Marybeth, a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, had just left her job as a TV reporter to work for the Maryknoll Missioners. They moved to Vermont in the dead of winter. They now live in Essex.

Marybeth has made her mark in the community, too, as a consultant for local nonprofits. She was recently appointed to the Vermont Women’s Commission. Liam, 15, is a freshman at Essex High School. (Redmond also has a 30-year-old son, Aiden, from a previous marriage, who is pursuing a nursing degree in New Hampshire.)

Much of Redmond’s, and Spectrum’s, energies now are devoted to two important new initiatives: expanding its reach into Burlington’s ethnic and refugee populations by increasing the diversity of its staff and ensuring that they’re very present in the high school and community; and operating the organization’s first Spectrum-owned business, a vehicle-detailing service — Detail Works: A Spectrum Enterprise — on Gregory Drive in South Burlington.

The idea for this endeavor came out of discussions between Redmond and his staff, and contacts with other service agencies that drove home the point that young castaways have scant opportunity to learn the habits necessary for holding a job, like showing up on time every day and communicating successfully with employers and customers.

The fledgling company is off to a sparkling start, Redmond says, which is due in no small measure to the support it has received from organizations like Leadership Champlain — operated by the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce — and local consultants who created a business plan for Detail Works, all of whom worked free of charge. One of many businesses Redmond credits is The Automaster, whose president, Jack DuBrul, extended an invitation to help train the young workers and told him, “I don’t see you as competition. I see you as grooming my future workforce.”

This attitude, Redmond says, exemplifies what he has found in Vermont that has supported Spectrum’s unending efforts to create a promising future for nearly hopeless, often homeless, youngsters.

“It’s all about personal relationships here,” he says. “Everybody knows everybody. Plus, the businesses here are very community-focused. And, as business people, they want to know, Does this work? And I think we can prove that what Spectrum does, does work.” •

Note: Updated 11-06-2017 1:45 p.m. to correct Yves Bradley's "body shop" to "Body Shop." We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.