Mark Swann Hon. '18 reflects on a life of anti-poverty work
by Patricia Erikson
Many families strategize how to keep children busy on long drives, to keep them focused on achieving landmarks along the way. Growing up, Mark Swann’s family practiced an unusual tradition. As they drove from their West Bridgewater, Massachusetts home northward, they awaited the moment when they would reach the Piscataqua River. As soon as they started to cross the bridge, Swann recalled, “we would open the windows to let Maine air into the car.” When his family left Maine, they reversed the process. As they drove southward, they closed the windows to trap the Maine air, as if to steel themselves for re-entry into their regular life. With three Bowdoin alumni in his family, these visits to Maine were frequent for Swann and soon he followed in his relatives’ footsteps. He became a Bowdoin alum and established strong ties to the state. That Maine air–and an experience working with at-risk teens in Liverpool, England–set a course for Swann’s career in creating solutions for Maine’s most vulnerable citizens
I visited Swann at the main office for Preble Street in Portland where he serves as executive director. Tall and silver-haired, Swann (also known as “Swannie” to his friends) engulfed my hand in a warm handshake. As he welcomed me into his office, I noticed that he overlooks the historic church where the Preble Street social service agency began.
He generously shared not only where the agency began, but where his career as a social worker began: “When I was in college, instead of taking a regular semester abroad, I looked for service projects. I worked at a teen drop-in center in Liverpool, England. It was a tough, gritty city. I spent time with families who were struggling with inner city, multi-generational poverty and I loved the work. Also, I worked with a bunch of people making a life for themselves, a career of working out of their personal values. I thought ‘this may be how I want to spend my life.’”
After graduating, Swann said he returned to Massachusetts and worked with a refugee resettlement agency in Boston, helping people from Cambodia, Laos, Eritrea, Czechoslovakia, and many other countries. Arming himself with a Master’s of Science in Public Affairs from UMass Boston, Swann committed to a career in social work. He said, “I was amazed at how non-profit boards, volunteers, and staff—all these people—came together for the mission. The mission and the belief system bind us in non-profit work.” Here enters the allure of the Maine air again.
“I didn’t necessarily plan on returning to Maine, but friends from Bowdoin College let me know about the position at Preble Street. So I came back in 1991.” He held both hands up, palm outward, and then dropped them. “I have been here since.” Under Swann’s leadership, what began as a small soup kitchen with two employees in the basement of an old church has developed into a multi-site, comprehensive social service agency for homeless and low-income individuals and families with over 250 employees. Preble Street has won several awards and national recognition for its dual efforts of providing basic, street-level services while also advocating for and building sustainable solutions to end homelessness and hunger. Swann’s receipt of an honorary doctorate from Saint Joseph’s College this year is just the latest award. In 2012, Mark was a Congressional Medal of Honor finalist, chosen for the Citizen Service Before Self Honors recognizing “sacrifice for others through a prolonged series of selfless acts.”
None of this service has been easy, especially recently. Swann admits that, “anti-poverty work has gotten even harder over the past few years. Why? Because of the political environment in the state and nation, because of the opioid crisis, and because of an overall climate of less compassion and more blame heaped on those who need help. We are at a point where people’s worth is defined by their economic status. What we’re seeing is an absolute and complete failure of the mental health system–nationally and statewide. Forty years ago, there were no homeless shelters. This is a new phenomenon since the 1980s. Now it is part of our urban landscape and it’s tied, in part, to the lack of treatment options for substance abuse. One hundred people per month are turned away from the only detox program in southern Maine. Every day in the Preble Street Soup Kitchen, someone says to us, ‘I want to get help. I want to get clean.’ This moment is a social worker’s dream! It’s that moment of clarity that you need to seize and connect that person with help. But what do we have to answer? ‘We’ll do our best. It might not happen today, or next week.’ Let me say that again. We’re saying ‘hold on’ when someone says that they are ready for help. All of this flies in the face of stereotypes about the homeless. They are asking for help, but the reality is that we have a state with almost no treatment.”
“We’re saying ‘hold on’ when someone says that they are ready for help. All of this flies in the face of stereotypes about the homeless. The reality is that we have a state with almost no treatment.”
I shared with Swann how last fall I had won a “dinner behind bars.” Jail bars, to be exact. I was attending a fundraising gala to support families in need of heating fuel, hosted by Saint Joseph’s College. Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce had donated a rare opportunity to tour the Cumberland County Jail and meet a few staff and inmates. He donates only a few of these each year and he knows what he’s doing: not only supporting a good cause, but busting open myths about criminality and homelessness in Maine. Along with five close friends, I toured the prison facility. Sheriff Joyce and his staff patiently showed us how the jail worked and, more importantly, how people ended up there. What I learned there turned upside down what I thought I knew about homelessness.
Like a lot of people, I assumed that the prison would be full of criminals. Instead, Sheriff Joyce explained that the majority of the inmates in the jail are suffering from mental health and substance abuse problems. “The good people of Cumberland County are paying taxes for us to serve as an expensive social service facility. Eighty percent of the inmates arrive in jail due to mental health or substance abuse issues, as opposed to intentional criminal activity. There are very few criminals here.” Joyce told the group.
I left with the image of the county jail as a revolving door where people, predominantly those living on the streets, spend a few nights and then are released to start the cycle over again. I couldn’t imagine how staff members there, or at Preble Street, coped. I asked Swann how they managed what seemed like an endless cycle.
“Like the jail, we are not a licensed clinical treatment program. Yet, we’re serving hundreds and hundreds of people with serious mental health issues and substance use disorder. And we have an overdose every eight days. Every eight days. I was in the Resource Center this morning and we had an overdose. This is not abstract for me. We have been looking at each other here at Preble Street and asking: what can we do? What is the systems work we can do as non experts? The answer was helping to organize all of the right people with the right expertise around a table, such as Maine Behavioral Health, Maine Medical Center, Mercy Hospital, and many others. We pooled together knowledge, expertise, and experience, and asked what could we learn from what they did in Boston? In Baltimore? Then we put a bill into the legislature. It’s called HOUSE or homeless opioid users service engagement. In essence, we advocate for solutions.”
Preble Street, he explained, is a social services agency with three parts. Best known is their direct, emergency services: the soup kitchen, the health clinic, and a shelter that offers warmth, safety, and compassion. But the solution-oriented work and the advocacy work—the second and third prongs—are what keeps him going, year after year. “Housing First for the chronically homeless is an example of solution-oriented work, as is helping vets before they become homeless. We have a great responsibility to speak up about systems that either don’t work or are detrimental. For example, we pushed for and wrote the first hate crimes legislation for people targeted for violence because of their economic status. We have pushed against efforts to reduce access to food stamps. We are working on medicaid expansion because medicaid is the primary funder of mental health and substance abuse.
“There are always successes to celebrate, and those are what we live for! We can celebrate the agency’s successes, such as the recent opening of Huston Commons, a 30-unit apartment building for the chronically homeless. We have also passed a bill to focus resources on Housing First.” Swann added that this bill was then vetoed by the governor.
“We are one of the only states to not identify Housing First as the solution to chronic homelessness. Ironically, we were one of the first to do it! Nationwide, cost-benefit studies are no longer needed for housing first programs because it’s been so well demonstrated how effective it is. It’s common knowledge. But we can’t get the state to embrace it.”
After returning to my office, I received an email from Swann. It’s addressed to all those on Preble Street’s Advocacy Alert email list and it explained how, for the last 30 years, at the recommendation of the City of Portland, Preble Street has received federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program. This year, unless the Council decided to overturn the City Manager’s recommendation, a vital Preble Street program—the Resource Center—would receive zero CDBG funds for the first time.
Swann and his staff clearly have an ongoing battle at hand.
When announcing that he would be conferring the Honorary Doctorate of Public Service Degree to Swann, President Dlugos said, “As an innovative leader, Mark’s work at Preble Street balances the needs of individuals with efforts to change the social structures that disadvantage those individuals. At a time when much of the world seems ready to dehumanize many of our sisters and brothers, Preble Street’s work offers us all the gift of inspiration.”