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Homeless Advocate Mixes Business Sense with Idealism

Red tape. That’s what Bryan Mauk, a homeless advocate, says he’s had on his mind recently. It’s not exactly what you expect to hear from an idealistic 22-year old who took the summer off to work on his newest outreach project.

Bryan Mauk is a homeless advocate who works in Cleveland.

Bryan Mauk is a homeless advocate who works in Cleveland. Photo: Greg Ruffing

“I like to say I spent the summer self-employed, instead of unemployed,” Mauk jokes.

The first-year master’s student at Case Western Reserve University’s Mandel Center for Nonprofit Organizations spent a sometimes-frustrating vacation submitting paperwork to obtain nonprofit status for the Metanoia Project, an organization he founded and recently incorporated.

“I’m learning the realities of how nonprofits work,” he says. “I still have a lot to learn.”

The name Metanoia (met•an•oy•a) was chosen because the Greek word can be translated to mean “reversal of thinking,” Mauk says. Effecting this kind of change is a two-part effort. The first part involves buying foreclosed houses that homeless people will renovate and sell. The funds will then support the second part of the project—Cleveland’s first overnight drop-in center.

Mauk is still learning the ins and outs of government bureaucracy, but, by all accounts, he’s gotten a good start on his first foray into nonprofit administration. The Metanoia Project began as a bit of a family affair. He has relatives who work in construction. His father is in real estate, and Mauk has been working with the homeless since high school.

“My family would always talk about the housing industry and how it’s collapsing,” he recalls. “And then I’d see all these abandoned homes and think: Why can’t we just fix them up? I kept saying if I had the money, that’s what I’d do.”

The money came in spring 2008 after Mauk applied for a William E. Simon Fellowship for Noble Purpose. Suddenly, he found himself with a $40,000 award.

“Next thing you know, I’ve got my money, and now I’ve got to do it,” he says. “It was this incredibly sobering moment where you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is.”

Bryan Mauk visits homeless residents in Cleveland.

Bryan Mauk visits homeless residents in Cleveland. Photo: Greg Ruffing

And that’s just what he’s doing.

A pilot program for the drop-in center launched last winter at St. Augustine Church in Cleveland. The Friday-night program was so popular that the number of people allowed in occasionally had to be capped for security reasons. Mauk points out that drop-in centers are different from shelters, partly because they aren’t residential.

“A lot of the homeless avoid shelters for a host of reasons,” he explains, quickly adding that shelters play an important outreach role. “But when you cram so many people into a space, there are going to be personality conflicts. Then you mix in alcohol, drug abuse and mental illness, and shelters can be violent places. So there are a lot of nonviolent people staying out on the streets, afraid to go in.”

Mauk plans to revive the drop-in center this winter and extend it to three nights a week, giving people a warm place to eat, socialize, rest and tap into mental health services and other resources. He’s also moving ahead on the housing-rehab arm of his project, although again he refers to the red tape.

“I’ve always been the guy who hates the red tape, who tries to cut through it at every opportunity,” Mauk says. “Maybe this experience has tamed that urge a little, given me some appreciation for all those guys breathing down my neck about insurance. Now I’m facing these real-world concerns, the business aspect of things.”

Still, he isn’t deterred. He sees the drop-in center and the plan to rehab foreclosed homes as the ultimate synthesis. The drop-in center will serve as an outlet for recruiting workers, who will improve their job skills and, eventually, be paid for their work. The renovated homes will be sold to lower-income buyers and improve neighborhoods, while simultaneously providing the funds for the drop-in center.

“It’s as much about making money to support the drop-in center as it is about improving neighborhoods,” Mauk says. “We have a dual mission.