Concord Homeless Resource Center director leaves after five years
Marcia Sprague (facing) hugs Claire Knowles, one of her former clients, at Sprague's going-away party celebrating her five years as director of the Concord Homeless Resource Center on November 22, 2013. "She said I was strong and did it myself but I wouldn't have been able to do itâI wouldn't be where I am today," says Knowles, who choked up during the party as she thanked Sprague for helping her secure a place to live.
(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
Marcia Sprague writes final thank-you notes to board members and volunteers as intern Sue Coviello and volunteer Robin Stamm stand outside Sprague's office on her last day after five years as director of the Concord Homeless Resource Center on November 22, 2013.
(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
Just one item hung on the bulletin board in Marcia Sprague’s office at the Concord Homeless Resource Center on Friday afternoon: a bright greeting card from a former guest, who has had a home for nearly two years.
Last week, he came back and brought a thank-you note to Sprague, who is leaving the center after five years. Sitting in her office Friday – her last day on the job – she read from his note:
“It says, ‘Marcia, I really appreciate all you have done for me. If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be where I am today. Your friend always.’ ”
That’s the best part of the resource center, Sprague said.
“The greatest thing about working here is that every day people look me in the eye, shake my hand and say thank you,” she said.
The center, run by the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness, will remain open at its location on South State Street as Sprague begins a new job at the Community Loan Fund. Jackie Lewis, the center’s case manager, is now the interim director.
“The resource center is at a good place now, it’s at a good plateau,” Sprague said. “I have an excellent crew of volunteers. They’re dedicated, they’re committed and they’re always here. We have a case manager now . . . and we have an intern also, so we’re sitting good. It’s a time to leave when things are running really smoothly.”
The Rev. David Keller, chairman of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness board, said the organization will take time to find a new director.
The resource center opened in January 2009 in the basement of South Congregational Church. Guests at the cold weather shelters needed more than just a place to sleep on winter nights, so the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness responded.
“It seemed to be a natural progression for the coalition to open up a day resource center that they could go to and work on issues of homelessness,” Sprague said.
Before that first winter, Sprague did not have much experience working with the homeless population in Concord. She had worked in social services, and has brothers who have struggled with mental illness and homelessness, and she found a job posting when the center was searching for a founding director.
“I was really excited about starting something in the community,” she said.
The center slowly formed relationships with volunteers and organizations, offering computers to use, haircuts, legal advice, showers at the Concord YMCA and help finding housing.
Few guests came at first, but now the center is often crowded and open for four hours every weekday. In 2011, it moved into a South State Street building owned by South Congregational Church. About 30 new guests now come each month to the center, which had more than 5,800 total visits last year, including repeat visitors. Sprague helps between five and seven guests find housing each month.
Sitting in her office last week as the small center overflowed with visitors awaiting her farewell party, Sprague pointed to a thick green binder at the bottom of her bookshelf. When she began work nearly five years ago, she had to start from scratch, finding answers to guests’ questions and problems.
“So every time I made a contact in the community I’d start a new page,” she said.
Sprague has faced challenges in finding homes for her guests. Shelter space in Concord is limited, and some people earn some money, but not enough to pay rent.
“There’s one gentleman who really wants to get out of being homeless, but he just cant get past himself,” she said. “He drinks. And so he misses appointments, he forgets that and then he feels really bad about himself. . . . That’s the hardest part, is seeing people not be able to follow through. Especially when they want it.”
This year, when the city and state addressed issues of panhandling and camping on public property, Sprague expanded her own role. She helped organize a rally in front of the State House and a vigil outside the Merrimack County Superior Courthouse during a legal battle over the right of homeless residents to camp on state land. She worked with Concord police Chief John Duval to notify people when the police planned to clear camps on private property. She helped her guests speak out, writing letters to officials and newspapers.
“And out of that, a lot of guests started to feel empowered, that they had a voice and that felt really good to me,” Sprague said. “Because . . . self-esteem is a huge issue when you’re homeless and you feel like you’re invisible in the community.”
Board members, guests and volunteers gathered Friday afternoon to celebrate Sprague’s five years at the center. They shared hugs, tears and cake while thanking her for her work.
“You have been instrumental in making the first five years of the resource center a success, obviously, because you were it,” Ellen Fries, a member of the coalition’s board, told Sprague.
Sprague will now step away from the center as it transitions to new leadership. But as officials weigh options for helping Concord’s homeless population, she hopes the foundation she created is here to stay.
“I really want to keep this whole issue of homelessness in front of people in the community,” she said.