Heroes of the Homeless Crisis: How Melissa MacDonnell of Liberty Mutual Insurance is helping to address the epidemic of youth homelessness

Fotis Georgiadis
May 13, 2020 · 19 min read

The reality is we all pass a lot more homeless people on the streets than we ever realize. The bulk of homelessness is invisible — most people who are living in shelter or in their cars look like every one of us.

had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa MacDonnell. Melissa is President of the Foundation at Liberty Mutual Insurance, a Fortune 100 global property and casualty insurer. Since Melissa founded it in 2003, Liberty Mutual Foundation has committed approximately $200 million dollars to 1,150+ organizations through direct grants, with a focus on accessibility, homelessness, and education; as well as employee matches to thousands of other nonprofits.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your personal background, and how you grew up?

I was fourth of eleven children born in thirteen years and grew up west of Boston. My identity from an early age — and in some ways to this day — has tied to being part of a community much bigger than myself. I loved having so many brothers and sisters. They remain my closest friends.

As a teenager, I started volunteering at a halfway house for men with developmental disabilities. One of my most impressionable experiences there, was getting to know an older deaf gentleman who actually did not have developmental disabilities but had been institutionalized his entire life because people didn’t realize he was deaf. So tragic! He was a bit of a grandfather figure to me and I relished my weekly visits where I could practice my sign language.

My “professional” life was also rewarding early on. I started babysitting in my early teens and felt I had a great pitch, since I was the second oldest girl in a gigantic family. Once I was of age, however, I got myself a “real” job, first at an ice cream stand, and then working as a cashier at the grocery store in town where I met my best friend to this day. I will certainly be forever grateful for that job.

After high school, I attended UMass Amherst where I studied finance and Spanish. I started in banking and worked on my MBA nights at Boston College. With my MBA barely in hand, I began a full-time master’s program in public administration at Harvard Kennedy School. At this point, I had made the switch into philanthropy and I was extremely interested in learning about social investing for public good. By the time I graduated, I was enamored with public service.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work helping people who are homeless?

There is not a particular story or moment; but rather, people who have inspired me. In fact, working in philanthropy, I’ve been inspired over and over again by the brave men and women who have themselves experienced homelessness and who have shared their insights to help others. I have heard them speak the truth of their experiences, their roadblocks, their struggles, and often their way out. They are true heroes.

The other heroes are the men and women keeping shelters open, offering meals for our neighbors who are hungry, traveling alongside the scared, alone and forgotten. I’ve experienced the ethos of this community of caregivers firsthand for nearly thirty years. This unsung, sacrificial model of service has demonstrated one of the highest levels of humanity. These caregivers neither seek the spotlight nor revel in it. Their heroism lies in the relationships between themselves and the people they serve. At all costs. On all days. Including — and perhaps even more so — when times are toughest.

THEY inspire me.

Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?

Over the last several decades, wages for lower-income people in particular have been relatively stagnant while housing costs have risen. Consequently, more and more people have been falling over the edge to homelessness. In many places, particularly the large cities such as the ones you mention, there is simply not enough available affordable housing. Pure and simple.

But the big question is what is going to happen now given the coronavirus. According to the latest national estimate by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 567,715 individuals are homeless. That’s a pre-COVID number. Add to that number the fact that, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, $8 million low-income households pay at least half of their income toward housing. So many people had already been living one paycheck, one sickness, one twist of fate away from homelessness. Sadly, that twist of fate may be the coronavirus.

For the benefit of our readers, can you describe the typical progression of how one starts as a healthy young person with a place to live, a job, an education, a family support system, a social support system, a community support system, to an individual who is sleeping on the ground at night? How does that progression occur?

Sure. It probably makes the most sense to follow the data. According to Chapin Hall’s Voices of Youth Count (VoYC) at University of Chicago, over a third of young people who experience homelessness lost a parent or caregiver within the prior year; more than half are exiting state systems either court or foster care systems. The data also shows that 36% of homeless youth are African American males and 20–40% are LGBTQ.

So the data helps us see clear progressions. For example, we know young people who lose a parent or guardian are extremely vulnerable. Therefore, as adults we need to be proactive, check in on these youth, and come around them as a community. We also know there is a cliff effect into homelessness for young people who are in the care of state systems; therefore, having a required exit plan could make a big difference. The disproportionality of homelessness experienced among black youth mirrors racial disparities documented elsewhere, for example in school suspensions, incarceration, and foster care placement. Finally, according to the VoYC report, the progression to homelessness for LGBTQ youth often stems from a lack of acceptance that young people experience both in and outside of the home.

A question that many people who are not familiar with the intricacies of this problem ask is, “Why don’t homeless people just move to a city that has cheaper housing?” How do you answer this question?

I think it’s pretty hard to pick up and move when you are either homeless or on the verge of homelessness. You would have to relocate with a job or a social network. Then the cost alone is prohibitive — the travel/ transportation and security deposit, along with first and last month’s rent requirements, create often intractable burdens . Plus, you need good credit to reestablish yourself and frequently people who have been living in poverty don’t have much of a credit history. They’ve been using check cashing facilities and pay day lending instead of banks and credit unions.

At Liberty Mutual one of our core beliefs is that progress happens when people feel secure. People who are experiencing homelessness are in survival mode. They have to be focused on where they will sleep or get their next meal. As one young person said to us recently, “until you’re homeless, you really don’t know what it’s like.” It’s hard to be in someone else’s shoes.

If someone passes a homeless person on the street, what is the best way to help them?

The reality is we all pass a lot more homeless people on the streets than we ever realize. The bulk of homelessness is invisible — most people who are living in shelter or in their cars look like every one of us.

I believe the best way to help people who are homeless is to put resources in the hands of experts. I’ll never forget the night I went out on the Pine Street Inn outreach van. The outreach team provides blankets and food to people living on the streets. But even more importantly, they build relationships and problem solve with people on the streets, finding out what services they currently have access to, encouraging them to come in for the night, helping them make a connection with staff at the Inn. The outreach team treated each and every homeless person on the street with the utmost respect. The staffs behind the programs Liberty Mutual Foundation invests in know how to help people who are homeless get the services they need to get on a path toward self-sufficiency. I am a firm believer that the best way to do something meaningful for someone who is homeless is to get to know the experts in your community, and to support their work.

What is the best way to respond if a homeless person asks for money for rent or gas?

I think the best way to respond to any person whether the person is homeless or not is with dignity and respect — regardless of whether you choose to give him/her money. Looking someone in the eyes and saying hello along with either yes or no, I think matters.

But again — whether you decide to give a person money, on the streets or not — I believe the most important way to do something that matters is to invest in groups that are expert at helping people transition from homelessness to stable housing and onto self-sufficiency. The more resources that can get in the hands of these programs and people the better. The leaders I speak with in this space want to solve for homelessness. They want to put themselves out of business. They want to ensure affordable housing, change systems that perpetuate homelessness and address root causes to homelessness.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact battling this crisis?

Our most prominent social initiative addresses the epidemic of youth homelessness. Young people who are experiencing homelessness have to focus on the urgency of today … where am I going to find my next meal? Where am I going to sleep? They are not in a place to fully invest in their futures. The implications of youth and young adult homelessness are harsh and yet are just beginning to be understood. Recently, to help reduce and end youth and young adult homelessness, Liberty Foundation made 44 youth homelessness grants totaling $6.6million. These grants will support nearly 15,000 young people across the country. We are also raising awareness through convenings, social media, speaking at national conferences and seizing any opportunity we find to share what we’ve learned. In partnership with all those on the frontlines of this work, we are moving toward a world in which youth homelessness is non-existent; but in the meantime, when a young person does end up on the streets, we want it to be rare, brief and episodic.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the homeless crisis, and the homeless community? Also how has it affected your ability to help people?

In a crisis where staying home is our best defense, those who are homeless are defenseless. Often compromised by preexisting health conditions, crowded facilities, and a lack of access to basic hygiene, people living in shelters or on the streets are among the most vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that a recent set of tests on guests seeking shelter at Boston’s Pine Street Inn showed some 36% were positive for COVID-19. It is a crisis within a crisis. Trauma on top of trauma.

Long before we had a stay-at-home advisory, Pine Street Inn, Boston’s largest shelter, began scrambling to put plastic dividers between cots that typically sit three feet apart, separating one guest from another.

Meanwhile, down the street at a day shelter, St. Francis House, they have been facing the seemingly insurmountable task of “social distancing” in a building sheltering 500 adults with no place to call home — tape was laid, lunch became prepackaged and dining shifts were orchestrated with precision over the course of six hours instead of two. Revenue down, costs up, volunteers not allowed, programming completely altered … and staff in harm’s way — including their executive director, Karen LaFrazia, who contracted COVID-19 and then passed it on to her daughter, who had to be admitted to Children’s Hospital.

At Liberty Mutual, we’ve chosen to respond to the crisis of COVID-19 in the community in a big and bold way. We’ve committed over $15 million in philanthropy to relief efforts. Of that, $10 million is aimed at helping organizations responding to coronavirus among the most vulnerable populations, including low-income residents and those experiencing homelessness. $4 million was allotted to support our full portfolio of 450 nonprofit grantees; and $1.1 million was contributed to pooled community funds.

In addition, we lifted $14.4 million in program restrictions for 2019 & 2020 grants, so organizations can use those funds as needed. We’ve redeployed our catering teams (external vendors) to prepare 100 lunches per day for youth living on the streets or in emergency shelters, and have done the same in New Hampshire for a family homelessness program. We’re running a “Torchbearers Calling” program to encourage employees around the globe to take 15 minutes every Friday to call someone who is isolated. Finally, business units around the globe contributed their own forms of support, from face masks and disinfectant in China, to major charitable donations in Spain, to boxed lunches for front line workers in Vietnam.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

There are so many stories, but one of my favorites is the story of a young woman I’ll call Julia. She had a falling out with her family due to a traumatic history. With no sure footing, no support and no savings, she found herself in a very unsafe situation. Consequently, she had tremendous anxiety and PTSD.

Luckily, she received support from the staff at Bridge Over Troubled Waters. They provided the counseling services she needed to process the harm and the hurt she had been through and manage her anxiety. They helped her to hope again — and to reach for her goal of medical school. With Bridge by her side, Julia could see her future again and began studying for the MCATs.

At the same time, Bridge approached Liberty about potentially purchasing a home for young people like Julia who had been through their Bridge’s transitional housing or emergency shelter program and were attending college or trade school. We helped Bridge, and they moved Julia right in.

Hundreds of youth and young adults live on Boston’s streets or in our shelter system every night. Unaccompanied. Alone. Abandoned. They are strong and resilient, but those nights of homelessness mean they must focus on survival rather than skills development, school or other long-term solutions. Liberty House gives these young people the freedom to finish school, the freedom to build their credit, and the freedom to follow their dreams.

The day Liberty House was dedicated to Julia and all the Julias out there was one of the most special days in my professional life. In underwriting the cost of buying this house, Liberty Mutual was saying to Julia, we see you. We believe in you. We’re in it with you. And starting today, Julia you’ve got what every young person needs and deserves — the safety and security to thrive.

Without sharing real names, can you share a story with our readers about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your work?

Definitely. Let me tell you about a young woman I recently spent time with. I’ll call her Amy.

When Amy was ten years old, her family lost housing and had to move into a shelter. For over a decade, she moved with her mother from shelter to shelter, all the while, as she puts it, “scrounging for food.” During that time, Amy worked hard to stay in school, but it was just too hard, and she dropped out in the 12th grade.

About a year ago, some family friends helped her find Bridge Over Troubled Waters — Boston’s foremost agency providing life-changing services for homeless, runaway and at-risk youth — and one of Liberty’s significant partners. Everyone at Bridge was welcoming and Amy got involved in their GED program where she ultimately was able to finish her schoolwork and earn her GED!

The team at Bridge also told her about job training at More Than Words, an organization that gives young adults who were in the foster care system, homeless, court-involved or out of school an opportunity to learn skills and operate a business, all while working to turn their lives around.

At More than Words, Amy came out of her shell while working in customer service– earning promotions along the way and learning how to give feedback to her peers as she worked her way up to becoming a shift leader in the business.

But even with all this support, homelessness was still making it hard for her to focus on her future. She had to buy a backpack to carry all her possessions with her every day and bring it everywhere she went. And even then she still lost a lot of her things, including all her winter clothes.

That’s when More Than Words and Bridge selected her for a new housing program, also supported by Liberty Mutual, and now Amy lives in her own room (a single-room occupancy) in a beautiful space surrounded by a support system while she saves up for permanent housing and college.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?

First, several cities and towns have begun to build affordable housing. More affordable housing with different habitation models will decrease homelessness. There have been some very successful models, for example, of moving high-frequency shelter users out of shelter into single room occupancies with basic support services. On the one hand, this type of intervention frees up shelter for emergency services only (as opposed to a housing option which it was never meant to be); further, this kind of housing offers a level of independence and a place to call home; and finally, it costs less. That is just one of many potential affordable housing constructs.

Two, there are a number of things we can do as a community and society for young people. For example, as I mentioned, ensuring that every young person who exits foster care or any state system leaves with a plan/roadmap for surviving and thriving. Another example is gathering around young people who experience the death of a guardian or parent, to step in and to check on that child’s safety net. And a third example is to institute screening in schools to identify students who are unstably housed so interventions can take place prior to a young person ending up on the streets. This is important because research shows that young people “couch surf” long before they end up on the street. Intervening before that happens could make a big difference.

And third, there’s great value in listening to people who are experiencing, have experienced, homelessness who may lack visibility to leaders and policy makers. They know firsthand what has proven successful for them. We can all lift up organizations and programs that value the voice of people with lived experience can help us as a society invest in solutions that really work.

If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

  1. Require an exit plan for youth as they age out of state mandated foster care. This would help minimize the high number of youth and young adults falling into homelessness
  2. Support for creating and sustaining affordable housing. The National Alliance to End Homelessness has a matrix of recommendations about laws that would increase different types of affordable housing models for more than 2.2 Million households.
  3. Support in identifying young people within the school system who are experiencing homelessness both independently and with their families. A Way Home America has a platform calling for additions to the McKinney Vento law.

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

I am surrounded by goodness. Leaders from public and nonprofit sectors as well as colleagues who care deeply about people who are less fortunate.

There’s an entire network of shelter staff and countless public servants who lay it all on the line for the people they serve and empower. Often their stories are hard to come by because the servants in these stories are too busy serving. They are humble heroes — people who are not confused or distracted about what really matters, who know who they are, who they serve and how to maintain that precious human covenant of love, trust and understanding that shows us all a path to higher humanity.

Within the walls of Liberty Mutual, I see the deep passion of my colleagues who jump at the chance to give or to serve. It’s a goodness that I believe makes our company great.

The work my team and I do merely elevates the passion and purpose of these smart servant leaders.

Do you have hope that one day this great social challenge can be solved completely?

Yes, I sure do. I don’t think it’s outside our grasp.

Before the pandemic began, many cities, including Boston where Liberty has its headquarters, had made great strides with veteran’s homelessness and that was being elevated as a blueprint. As a whole, the community was gathering the data about who was experiencing homelessness, where they originated, what their needs were and right-sizing the response on services (health care, job training), benefits (like food programs) and housing (rapid temporary, congregate or long-term apartments). This is the kind of response that is well-suited to public-private partnerships and broad collaborations because it is tied to the availability of benefits, education, career training and jobs, as well as affordable housing. Certainly, the economic collapse due to COVID-19 will make solutions more difficult, but a model is there for making society work for people who have the least and are most vulnerable.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I wish someone had told me when I first started to: 1) Assume positive intent. This is one of our guidelines for inclusion at Liberty Mutual. I love to step into a conflict or challenging situation consciously assuming that the person on the other side of the conflict has good intentions of his/her own. And frankly, I appreciate interacting with others who are assuming the same of me. 2) Everyone has blind spots, the sooner you find yours, the less harm they’ll do to you and others. I’m very fortunate that Liberty Mutual invests in its leaders. Through that investment, I saw areas of opportunity for me to grow as a leader, for example, I saw the kind of pressure I could put on my team to be perfect — which brings me to my third lesson …3) Perfection is overrated. Sometimes, perfection is not the goal — knowing when that’s the case, can really help one’s effectiveness as a leader. 4) Find your voice — always know who you are and who you’re not and what’s at stake! 5) Lean heavily into your gifts. We all do certain things really well. Professionally, the more alignment between our gifts and our work, the greater our impact.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would like to inspire an anti-poverty — pro-empowerment movement. It would need to have sub-movements to get at some of the root causes of poverty and examine how systems can perpetuate harm.

For example, education is the surest way to get and keep people out of poverty. We all know this. Yet access to quality education is not a given. In certain neighborhoods, the options for schools are abysmal. In certain countries, females have zero access to education. Yet we all know that quality education breaks the cycle of poverty. Therefore, quality education would be my number one sub-movement.

While education is the best investment in the future, I’d also want to address the immediacy of today’s needs.

We all have things happen to us that put us in peril, but for many of us, we have a social and safety network that can help us during these times of crisis. Some people just don’t have that. We see this a lot with youth and young adult homelessness. Many young people who are in the foster care system for example, transfer homes a half dozen times in their young lives, and never have the stability of one caring adult.

When I’ve had the opportunity to walk the streets of Boston during the City’s annual homeless census count or ride the nightly van with the Pine Street Inn, I’ve learned a lot from the people I’ve met who were living on the streets. One critical lesson is that people need access to mental health services. They need their medications. They don’t need to be on the streets. Once their mental health is straight, all else can follow like job training and affordable housing.

Progress happens when people feel secure. Getting at the root of poverty helps people soar. We are all put on this earth to make a contribution. It is nearly impossible to live out your purpose when you’re simply struggling to survive.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There’s a quote from the Bible that has become my life lesson. It is an instruction to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” This spoke to me 20 years ago and has stayed with me ever since. Leading the philanthropy at Liberty Mutual is bigger than a job, it’s a privilege. I am helping a company that is full of caring people and leaders who desire to do a lot of good. I feel called to make the most of this opportunity. In my extremely large family, we were kind of like one big pack of kids, I always felt uniquely me, individually created for something I was called to do. And I believe that for every single person in this world.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

I would love to have breakfast with Oprah Winfrey because, despite her enormous fame and fortune, she seems rooted in, and led by, a spirit of truth and goodness. I love how she has used her voice and platform to lift up so many others. I mentor and tutor young women from South Sudan, so of course I especially appreciate all that she has done to advance educational opportunities through her Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find me on LinkedIn or learn about the work we are doing at Libertymutualfoundation,org..

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

My pleasure. Thank you

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film…

Fotis Georgiadis

Written by

Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Fotis Georgiadis

Written by

Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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