Updated: Jun 27
This is the second interview in our series of pieces to highlight members of The Haven staff. The Haven, a day shelter for the homeless in Charlottesville, has continued to offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner to guests during the COVID19 pandemic. The ultimate goal at The Haven is to help people who have fallen into homelessness get into secure housing. This is no easy task, so part of the mission is to offer daily meals, showers, bathrooms, laundry, health services, and social services to guests. The Haven is truly an epitome of community and solidarity in Charlottesville, and through a series of interviews with the staff, we hope to show the greater Charlottesville community what this wonderful place is all about. If you’re interested in supporting The Haven, COVID19 Student Service Corps (CSSC) at UVa has created several ways to contribute listed at the end of this article. This week’s staff member highlight is on Owen Brennan, the Director of Operations at The Haven.
1. What brought you to Charlottesville?: “I grew up in Lynchburg, and then went to New Hampshire for college and eventually landed in NYC. While I lived in New York, I was a preschool music teacher. In 2011, I was ready to come back to Central VA, and Charlottesville seemed like a good place to land. I started volunteering in The Haven’s kitchen, back in the days when Eleis Lester was the kitchen manager. I really loved the community and people here. So when a day shelter shift supervisor position opened up, I applied for that, and I’ve been moving from position to position within The Haven ever since, based on where I’m needed and when roles open up.”
2. What is your role at The Haven?: “My official title is ‘Director of Operations,’ which I think is wonderfully vague. About half of my job is keeping track of our finances and budget. The other half is a wild grab bag with the goal of keeping The Haven’s wheels greased and running (relatively) smoothly -- making sure staff have all the resources they need to do their work; assessing and tweaking our programs; coordinating repairs and changing light bulbs; onboarding new employees and handling our human resources.”
3. Why did you get involved with The Haven?: “When I lived in New York, I spent a lot of time with a community called The Catholic Worker. I found a lot of fulfillment and joy from that work. When I moved to Charlottesville, I was looking for a similar type of community, and my friend Luis pointed me towards The Haven. Witnessing guests, staff, and volunteers care for each other, in real relationships with each other was, and continues to be, magnetic for me and made me want to be a part of this community.”
4. What are your 3 favorite hobbies?: “I love playing music, spending time with my kids, and hiking and exploring new places around Charlottesville. At home I like playing acoustic music -- bluegrass and country. I also like to get together with some friends, plug in my guitar and play more psychedelic stuff. I’ve got two little boys, who are two and four. Parenting is the most challenging thing I have ever done, but also the most joyful.”
5. What is the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?: “The first thing I do is sit by myself and take a moment to get grounded and just breathe. Unless my kids are awake. If my kids are up before me, the first thing I do is make breakfast for them.”
6. What is a good habit you have developed and hope to maintain post quarantine?: “I think I’ve been a lot better about keeping in touch with my siblings and parents in quarantine. We’ve been doing a regular game night via Zoom so I hope that continues when things return to normal, or more normal. It’s been great to be more connected to them.”
7. What is something you’ve stopped in quarantine and are glad that you did?: “I’m not eating as much candy because I’m not going to CVS. So, I guess that’s good for my health and what not, ha ha.”
8. What is one thing you wish you could have told your college age self?: “I would advise my college age self to take advantage of all the free time I had in my 20s. Not to get ahead in a career or make money, but to spend time getting better at things I love doing. I’ve never had as much free time as I did in my 20’s!”
9. What else should we know about you?: “I really think we can end homelessness in this area. It’s going to require building more permanent support housing, and/or purchasing existing buildings that could be converted to apartments for our chronically homeless guests, in addition to continuing to build relationships with local landlords and other creative solutions. But I do think we can get to a place where homelessness is rare, and brief in Charlottesville, and the surrounding counties.”
10. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned working here?: “People are more important than programs, numbers, or statistics. The way we measure and talk about homelessness in our community is through numbers and statistics, and when you’re using that language a lot, you can become overly focused on the numbers. You can forget that each number represents a unique person with infinite complexity, richness, and value.”
Jeannie: “How do you personally keep faces on those numbers to appreciate individuals?”
“I carve out the space and time in my day to spend time with our guests, check in with folks, and cultivate those relationships. My job is literally to manage the numbers, but these relationships keep me grounded and inspired, and help me remember why I’m doing this work.”
11. What is a misconception people have about homelessness or homeless individuals?: “A lot of people think that the experience of homelessness is primarily the result of an individual’s bad decisions or bad luck. But walking the downtown mall on Friday or Saturday night (back when we could do things like that), I’ve seen people making plenty of bad decisions -- week after week -- that don’t result in them becoming homeless! Many of us are fortunate enough to have a strong safety net of family and friends who have the resources to support us when we hit a rough stretch -- if we lose a job, or experience challenges to our physical or mental health, or struggle with addiction. But many families and communities in America have been systematically underpaid and can’t save money to weather a crisis. Add to that racist housing practices that have prevented Black communities from investing those resources in real estate. And so when someone in those communities hits a crisis, there’s just fewer resources to go around to keep that person from losing their housing.
This is all to say -- I think we need to start to see ending homelessness as the responsibility of the whole Charlottesville community, especially those who are reaping the benefits of our current economic system.”
Owen is one of many staff members who make The Haven and all of its wonderful services possible. The Haven relies on support from our community to keep its doors open and services available, so if you’re interested in donating to or volunteering with The Haven through CSSC our website has information on how to do so (https://www.communityamongchaos.com/Projects/The-Haven--Support-Team). Or, you can visit The Haven’s official website (https://www.thehaven.org) for ways to donate time and resources. If you have any questions, comments or concerns about this article, feel free to contact Jeannie Taylor (firstname.lastname@example.org).