Get to Know: Colin McDonnell

Posted on September 16, 2016


Colin McDonnell

As we continue to find new ways for the City, the County of Marin, our services providers, and our community members to come together to address homelessness (check out the Marin Voice article this week highlighting the positive impacts of collaboration), I think it is important to remember that at the end of the day, every organization is just a group of people.  While the Ritter Center as an organization, for example, often receives significant public attention, if you visit the Ritter Center, you’ll find a group of hardworking, passionate individuals trying to make a difference.

One of the most important initiatives at Ritter is the Housing First program. “Housing First” is a national best practice where you move a chronically homeless person straight from the street into a home.  You then wrap that person in supportive services.  While the conventional wisdom is that a homeless person should get sober or start taking mental health medication before entering housing, people that are extremely impaired are rarely able to complete these milestones. By bypassing the middle steps, Housing First has demonstrated incredible housing retention rates for chronically homeless individuals.  To give you a sense of how successful the process can be, during a tour of a Housing First program in San Mateo earlier this week, I jotted down the following stat about the program’s residents: before Housing First – 38.46 police contacts per month … while in Housing First – 0.04 police contacts per month.  That’s a 99% reduction in police contacts!  Colin McDonnell oversees Housing First at Ritter.

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What is your position with the Ritter Center?  How did you end up in that role?

I am the Director of Case Management at the Ritter Center.  I started working here as an entry level case worker about eight years ago and stuck around because I really enjoy the work that goes into assisting the populations we serve.

How is Ritter working to end homelessness in Marin?

We have a clinical team that provides wraparound services to assist people who are experiencing poverty. This can mean anything from delivering therapy and medication assistance to help someone get through a traumatic event in their life to emergency rental help that prevents a family from losing their home.

What is the biggest myth about homelessness in Marin?

The most common myth that I hear is that homelessness is a choice and that most people who are homeless have options available to them that they are not taking advantage of.

What is the most disappointing thing that has happened in your position so far?

I’m most disappointed when I meet with someone in a desperate situation who is in need of assistance and – due to the holes in our system of care – there is nothing that I can do to help them beyond offering kind words of support.

What has been the biggest surprise in your position?

I have been blown away by the gratitude and appreciation expressed to me by people that I have been able to provide assistance to. Those that have nothing are so grateful to have someone listen to them and try to understand their situation in life.

What is the greatest systemic challenge you face in your position?

Trying to help families and individuals access affordable housing in this county is by far the greatest challenge I experience in my position.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement in your position so far?

Working to establish a Housing First program for the most chronically homeless individuals in this County has been incredibly rewarding. This program continues to develop and grow. At this point, after four years, we have been able to provide scattered site housing to 34 adults.

What skills, qualities, and/or attitudes are needed for your job?

This job requires a level of flexibility and patience that I did not know I possessed until trying to do this work. Being able to hear someone’s story and relate to their experience with empathy is the most important quality needed to do this work well.

What are 2-3 actionable pieces of advice for community members who want to get more involved on this issue? 

Take the time to get to know the people who are experiencing homelessness in your respective community. Get to know them and make an effort to acknowledge them when your paths cross. Donate your time to agencies that work with populations experiencing poverty. It will be a rewarding and eye-opening opportunity.

How can community members find out more information about your organization? (e.g. outcomes, metrics, contracts, etc.)

Within the next month, we will have an updated website – www.rittercenter.org– and this will be a great source of information to learn about the multitude of programs we have and the different ways in which we serve families and individuals living in Marin. We are also happy to have community members come in and volunteer in our food pantry or to apply for professional volunteer positions to assist with things like resume building or housing searches.  All of our staff members are happy to talk about the work we do with members of the community as well.

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