Opening doors

Frank Alexander lauded for making a difference for county’s needy

Jefferson Dodge | Boulder Weekly

Frank Alexander started helping the needy in high school, volunteering for Habitat for Humanity and food pantries in tiny Hopewell, N.J.

The Manhattan native continued serving others in college, working for Upward Bound’s camps for low-income youth and tutoring at-risk students in elementary and middle schools.

Now, decades later, he’s still helping the less fortunate, just on a much larger scale. Alexander is Boulder County’s director of housing and human services, and he’s Boulder Weekly’s Person of the Year because he has been responsible for leading a remarkable transformation in how the county helps its needy.

While he is quick to give credit to his staff, nonprofits and the community, others point to Alexander as the main reason for the improvements.

In a nutshell, during a time of economic downturn, his division is handling an increased caseload and has endured a profound reorganization, and yet is providing people basic needs like food and shelter more effectively — and doing it for less money.

Alexander is credited with successfully merging the county’s housing and human services department, weathering a major budget cut, proposing a successful temporary tax increase to offset cuts and caseload increases, and spearheading a philosophical shift in how the county delivers service to individuals, families and children.

The model Alexander has adopted, which actually requires less funding, is being copied around the state and nation.

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Alexander lived in Philadelphia in the early 1990s, when there was rash of deaths among the homeless population due to exposure to extremely cold weather. He worked for a “code blue” program designed to prevent those deaths. Then, in 1996, he took a job as manager of a homeless family shelter and food bank for Bucks County. Alexander moved to Colorado in 1998 to become elder rights coordinator in Boulder County’s aging services department, serving as ombuds for long-term care and Medicare as well as running training programs on elderly abuse prevention. He was named Boulder County housing director in 2004.

Alexander says this breadth of experience with a variety of populations taught him something.

“People who need assistance want the same things,” he says.

Experts agree they generally want just enough help to get back on their feet and take care of themselves, they don’t want their kids removed from the home, they don’t want to be institutionalized, they want to stay in their community, and they want the least intrusive form of assistance possible.

“Those happen to be the lowest-cost interventions and have the most likelihood of success,” Alexander says.

And oftentimes people who need food stamps also need housing assistance, and they may also have children suffering from neglect, malnutrition or other issues. But most county governments have separate departments for housing and social services.

That was true for Boulder County until early 2009, when Alexander was chosen to lead an integrated division that placed all housing and human services under one roof. The county commissioners made the move not necessarily to save money, but to recognize that the two divisions were regularly serving the same population and should work more closely to do so. Those involved acknowledge that the merger was painful at times. But there was more pain to come.

On top of managing the consolidation of the two departments, in late 2009, Alexander learned that his budget was getting slashed by $5.7 million, thanks to a combination of caseload increases, state (and, to a lesser extent, federal) budget cuts and legislative changes.

(SB 177, passed in 2008, restricted counties’ Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding.)

So the wilted economy was driving up the number of needy families and boosting demand for the county’s services, just as the amount of money Alexander’s division had on hand to meet that demand was getting siphoned off. It was the perfect storm.

But as it turns out, the newly merged division, and an innovative approach to delivering services, allowed housing and human services to thrive.

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It was not without bloodshed. The budget cuts led to the loss of 25 positions in human services, although only 1.5 of those were layoffs — the rest were achieved through severance packages or voluntary retirements. The department was forced to close its Louisville office, saving about $300,000 a year. County child care services stopped accepting new clients and tightened its eligibility requirements.

“Change is difficult,” Alexander says. “But a crisis is certainly an opportunity. You can either get hit by the crisis and crumble or shrink, or you can take the crisis and turn it into change.”

The new approach to service delivery that he spearheaded actually ended up saving the division money. The model involves early intervention and prevention. For example, getting to people who are about to lose their housing and giving them temporary rental funding or helping them avoid foreclosure is more effective — and cheaper — than trying to help someone gain housing after they have already become homeless. It’s being more proactive than the traditional model of just serving as a safety net, catching people’s heads just before they hit the pavement.

“It’s costing society an enormous amount of money to have people homeless,” Alexander says. “Instead of being an emergency back-end system, we want to encourage people to get the right amount of help at the right time. And the earlier we can get involved in people’s lives, the less it costs.”

As part of the merger — and to be more effective in getting people the help they need — under Alexander’s tenure Boulder County Housing and Human Services cross-trained its own staff in the hopes that any employee could help any client, instead of shuffling the client to another department to fill out more paperwork. The effort has successfully eliminated departmental “silos” and reduced bureaucracy.

“Without the merger, I don’t think we would have been able to serve as many people, nor in such an agile and comprehensive way,” he says.

Jennifer Eads, the county’s self-sufficiency and community support director, says the transition has not just resulted in fewer forms and hands involved in the process, it has prompted a change in language. To destigmatize terms like “welfare” and “food stamps,” those items are now called “financial assistance” and “grocery assistance,” she says. “It’s night and day from what it was three years ago.”

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The division has also improved its relationships with — and provided funding to — community partners like the Sister Carmen Community Center in Lafayette, the OUR Center in Longmont, the Emergency Family Assistance Association (EFAA) and local schools.

It’s all part of an initiative known as “Any door is the right door,” which is intended to get clients the resources they need, regardless of whether they show up at a community organization, a school or the HHS office.

“I’d say one of his biggest accomplishments, especially in the last two years, is he has driven his staff to form really strong partnerships with community-based organizations,” says Suzanne Crawford, CEO of Sister Carmen. “He’s really led in that regard. We’re doing a lot of excellent work together.”

She points to a rent assistance program the county funded about two years ago that allows Sister Carmen to continue serving in the role of case manager while providing clients up to six months of paid expenses to stabilize themselves.

“It kept a lot of people off the street or from living in their car,” Crawford says.

Terry Benjamin, EFAA executive director, says one outcome of the strong partnerships with community groups is that virtually anyone in the support network who is first to contact needy individuals can help assess what they are eligible for, whether from the county or a local nonprofit. (Community partners have been trained in the county’s online benefits management system.) If the individual qualifies for county support in the form of food stamps, for instance, EFAA may conserve its food supplies for those who aren’t eligible for that, to reach as many people as possible. Nonprofits then take overflow in situations where the county can’t help.

“It lets us maximize our collective impact,” Benjamin says of the collaboration, adding that nonprofits want to maintain their independence even when they receive county funding, and Alexander has been respectful of that.

“There’s a dynamic tension in there that’s healthy as long as you’re respectful of shared goals and roles, and Frank works hard to do that,” Benjamin says, calling him “a really driving force.”

Many changes Alexander implemented were recommended by Casey Family Programs, a Seattle foundation dedicated to improving foster care and the child welfare system. For instance, Casey wants to keep more at-risk kids in their own homes, and aims to reduce out-of-home placement by 50 percent nationally before 2020. Boulder County has already reduced out-of-home placement by 40 percent.

Thanks in no small part to Alexander, Casey is now working with state officials to spread the model to 13 other Colorado counties.

Alexander is also credited with spearheading the successful county ballot measure 1A in 2010, which raises $5.4 million annually through a property tax increase that expires after five years. The money goes to backfilling human services areas that have been cut or have seen caseload increases, and several local nonprofits have benefited from the funding as well.

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Alexander’s impact has not been limited to the county level. He serves as co-chair of the Colorado Department of Human Services Policy Advisory Committee, as well as president of the Colorado Human Services Directors Association. Through these statewide leadership roles, he is helping to spread Boulder County’s new model for service delivery.

According to Lloyd Malone, the state’s child welfare director, not having integrated services like Boulder County can actually exacerbate problems instead of solving them.

He says families in need can “find themselves in a system that is very fragmented and has many doors, and all of them are difficult to get through, and there always seems to be a different process for a different door.

“Frank has been a great visionary about the blending of human services programs, where families should see a seamless system and a system that to them is integrated, even though the people behind the door are working hard to keep it that way,” Malone says. “Good systems are invisible to clients when they’re integrated properly. I think Boulder County is probably the shining star in our state regarding that.”

He describes Alexander as an effective leader.

“He’s just a wonderful collaborator,” Malone explains. “He’s very respectful to other leaders. He’s assertive, but also a partner in dealing with issues of mutual interest. He’s able to communicate exceptionally well with other leaders. He’s very articulate and gentle, but clear in very powerful leadership messages about what the future should bring for our systems.

“He’s someone you listen to and say, ‘Yeah, I can get behind that.’” On top of his professional achievements, those who work with him say Alexander is simply a good guy.

“He’s just a super-nice person,” Crawford says. “He elicits input and thoughts from others in a very egalitarian way, so you always feel part of the process,” Malone says. “He’s smart and articulate, he knows his stuff, he works well with others and consequently, gets things done because of that.”

“It’s really an inspiring place to work, because he’s truthful and has integrity,” Eads says. “There’s absolutely no ego involved. … I don’t think I could do this job, in this economy, without someone as steadfast and strategic as Frank.”

Kit Thompson, the county’s family and children services director, calls him “an incredibly passionate human being,” adding that his management style is one of listening to his staff and delegating to people he trusts, “but he’s also willing to get down in the dirt if he needs to.”

When asked what gives him the most satisfaction in his job, Alexander pauses.

“The sense of community responsibility and working with the community partners we have,” he says.

“Working in a community where people believe fundamentally that if we can support people in hard times, we will all be better off.

“The economic downturn has taught us how much stronger we are together than we are apart.”