Millicent Nwolisa is executive director of Bridges to Housing Stability, a nonprofit with the mission of preventing homelessness by providing effective services and compelling advocacy that result in housing stability for Howard County households.
Nwolisa, recently appointed to her post at Bridges, came to the organization after serving as chief operating officer for Potomac Center, a state mental health facility. Her first love is the nonprofit sector. Prior to her service at the Potomac Center, she owned and successfully operated a nonprofit consulting firm that served clients throughout Maryland. Her company developed a broad range of leadership, advocacy and development initiatives that increased access to a continuum of services for homeless children, youth and families.
We follow statistics about homelessness from U.S. Housing and Urban Development reports such as the Annual Housing Inventory Count, as well as from Homeless Point-in-Time Counts, which provide counts of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness on a single night. How would you describe the face of homelessness in Howard County?
Although the 2015 Point-in-Time Survey showed a very small decrease in the number of homeless persons living in Howard County, going from a count of 170 homeless people identified in 2014 to 166 homeless people identified during the 2015 Point-in-Time survey, the fact still exists that nearly 7,000 households in Howard County are at risk of becoming homeless due to high rent costs.
The solution to address this issue continues to be the need for more affordable housing in Howard County, and unfortunately, until a surplus of affordable housing is available, we do not see the need decreasing. We are seeing a continued need for the foreseeable future for our case management services and for affordable housing programs.
What do you tell people who are surprised that there is homelessness in what is regarded as such an affluent county?
I have spoken with many such people. In fact, at one point over the years, I would have been surprised myself to hear that homelessness is, and has been, a problem in Howard County. I validate the fact that, in many ways, Howard County is an affluent community. However, the affluence of the community does not negate the need of the community.
I have found myself having to ask people to define what homelessness is to them. The face of homelessness in Howard County will not be the same as in Washington, D.C., or in Baltimore. Here, the face of homelessness can look like me or the grocery store worker or the waiter or waitress at your favorite restaurant.
The face of homelessness can even look like the person you work with every day that you do not know sleeps in his or her car, bathes and changes clothes at the Y every morning. It is really important to get those people to understand that homelessness is more than the man or the woman on the street with a sign asking for help.
What is your priority during 2016 for Bridges?
Our priority is to really get out in the community and advocate, as well as fundraise, for our mission. We already have a positive reputation with the county government and with service providers, which is fantastic.
We are now at a point at which we want to focus on getting out into the community to communicate with and build relevant and lasting relationships with businesses. It has been truly refreshing to meet some businesspeople who already know how helpful our program is. Our goal now is to get to a point where everyone in the community knows.
Why is the holistic process of case management an important structure through which to help people?
First, case management gives the family or the individual in need an advocate and an outlet for emotional support. On a basic level, those are two very important components.
Case management offers the best structure through which to help the people we serve because case managers have a greater understanding of the interconnectedness of a person’s needs. Sometimes, when people come to us for help, the overarching need for a home doesn’t allow them to assess the deeper needs that our case managers — we call them “housing advocates” — are really able to address.
Through the Bridges Alliance, a public-private initiative offering affordable housing choices to low-income households, businesspeople have joined other investors, advocates and supporters in a “100 Homes for 100 Households” campaign to help meet the need for a fraction of the 7,000 households in Howard County that are at risk of becoming homeless due to high rent costs. How is the campaign progressing?
I am happy to say that our 100 Homes for 100 Households campaign is definitely gaining momentum. We now have four partners: The Howard Hughes Corporation, Residential One, Harkins Builders Inc. and Humphrey Management.
We have increasing interest from businesses that want to join the alliance. We think more corporations are understanding the need and have the desire to give back. We are truly excited about the future of the Bridges Alliance.
What do you need from local businesses?
We are excitedly looking for local businesses that would be willing to fundraise for us, as well as businesses that will join with us in becoming a Sustaining Partner of the Bridges Alliance program by making a pledge of $5,000 to $10,000 a year for three years. For businesses that would like to be a part of our initiative but may not be able to afford that amount, they can choose to become a Supporting Partner and make a smaller pledge toward our Alliance Program.
We are in the process of putting together a corporate “wish list” which will be available on our website very soon. We are also looking for businesses that will assist us in attaining the items on our wish list, whether through volunteering, in-kind gifts or other ways. We want to significantly increase our marketing efforts, so we would love the opportunity to work with local businesses that would be willing to help us facilitate some media campaigns to bring more publicity to the organization, and subsequently, our mission.
Bridges’ Sixth Annual “Hotter Than Thou” Chili Cook-Off is coming up. Are you looking forward to your first Chili Cook-Off?
I am so excited for my first Chili Cook-Off. This is our biggest fundraiser — and it is for anybody and everybody. There will be a crowd of people and a ton of fun. We not only have chili, but also door prizes and silent auction items. Bring your family and come and taste.