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Former banker Stephen Smith now leads Charlotte Family Housing

One of the pivotal agencies in Charlotte’s fight to end growing family homelessness took a new leader this week.

Stephen Smith – a banker turned charity leader – is taking over Charlotte Family Housing at a time when community leaders are lauding it as the model for a recently created rental subsidy endowment.

Smith was most recently executive director of the Harvest Center, a community outreach ministry in the Genesis Park area north of uptown.

He will earn $115,000 annually at Charlotte Family Housing, which was created two years ago through a merger of three housing charities.

Homeless advocate Darren Ash has led the agency since its start as a volunteer. However, the CFH board continued to set aside an annual salary, knowing it would eventually have to hire a full-time CEO.

Ash will remain with the agency in a volunteer capacity, to recruit landlords and create partnerships with other nonprofits and businesses.

The change in leadership comes just weeks after the Charlotte City Council voted to partner with Foundation for the Carolinas to create a $20 million rental subsidy endowment that will help homeless families who are expected to need less than two years to get on their feet.

Charlotte Family Housing’s shelter-to-housing program likely will play a key role in the endowment’s success. The agency, which emphasizes personal responsibility, works with parents who have low-paying jobs.

Smith said that model is a key reason he jumped at the chance to take over the agency, which has a 90 percent success rate with getting families into unsubsidized housing. It helped 248 families this past year.

“I love the model because it’s not that old paradigm of charity,” Smith said. “This is about helping people by believing they’ve got everything within them to be self-sufficient. It’s not about handing them things.”

Leaving corporate life

Smith – the son of a zoologist and a social worker – is among a handful of local charity leaders who came to their jobs after successful careers in the corporate world.

A native of Pennsylvania, he attended college to be a lawyer and is licensed to practice law in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Instead of lawyering, he began working as a financial adviser to wealthy families. And that’s what brought him to Charlotte in 2008: a job with Calibre, a division of Wachovia Wealth Management.

Smith said he began questioning his career choices, and sought the advice of others in the community who had gone from the corporate world to charity work.

“I was in my 40s, and my mother had died in her 50s, so I couldn’t help but consider whether I wanted my legacy to be a life spent helping rich people get richer,” said Smith, who grew up accompanying his parents on charity work.

“What Christ did was help the poor, and I was challenged by the value he placed on those whom society does not see as valuable.”

When the recession hit, Smith said, it was the perfect time to stop and re-evaluate.

Wendi Smith, his wife of 29 years, said she wasn’t sure at first what to make of his desire for a change. The couple have three children, and two were in college at the time.

“That desire meant changing a lifestyle that we had become accustomed to, drastically,” she recalled.

“I could see he was excited about this. … It was an excitement I hadn’t seen in a long time working in the banking industry. It was hard for everybody during that time in the industry.”

He joined the Harvest Center in 2010, earning a salary of about $62,000, a quarter of his compensation when he worked for the bank.

Harvest Center board member Dan Cottingham says Smith did a great job by refining the agency’s mission to focus on changing lives, rather than offering temporary help.

As a result, the agency got out of the food pantry business and put greater emphasis on job training and transitional housing to help people who were homeless.

“He transformed the Harvest Center and got us focused on what we should be doing,” said Cottingham. “He did that not through adding, but through subtracting things.”

Charlotte Family Housing has a budget nearly three times that of the Harvest Center, and Cottingham thinks starting small helped Smith “because he had to wear many hats.”

“You come in here, and you’re going to save the world, and then reality hits,” said Cottingham. “You find there are higher mountains to climb, and you don’t have the resources you need.”

Creating a model

Darren Ash is given much of the credit for creating the agency that Smith will take over.

Carol Hardison, head of Crisis Assistance Ministries, sees Ash as an entrepreneur who saw a gap in the community’s help for homeless families and found a way to fill it.

The result was a merger of the Workforce Initiative for Supportive Housing, Charlotte Emergency Housing and Family Promise of Charlotte. Ash was executive director of WISH at the time, another job he did at no salary.

The three agencies had differing programs, but were all focused on helping working families facing homelessness.

“Darren created an agency with no playbook and no model in the country,” says Carol Hardison of Crisis Assistance Ministry. “It was based on an understanding of need in the community. … He’s turning his baby over to somebody else.”

Advocates estimate that homeless families account for 4,000 people in the city, with some in shelters but more in hotels or sleeping temporarily at the homes of friends.

The numbers have grown between 21 percent and 36 percent annually since 2009.

Mike Rizer, director of community development for Wells Fargo Corp., has known Smith for nearly six years and believes he is taking over CFH at the perfect time, given the demands presented by the new rental endowment.

“I think it could be a real game changer in Charlotte, something that could move the needle in a way we’ve not done it in a long time in Charlotte,” Rizer said.

“He’s the right guy, with the right combination of heart and head for the job. He understands the clients and he has a great business head on how to handle day to day operations.”

Smith believes a far greater strength is the ability to offer help without patronizing the poor.

At least that’s what he hopes to accomplish.

“You patronize people by doing for them what they can do for themselves,” Smith said.

“If you do that, you rob them of something. You have to value their strength to overcome.”

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