The Chatham-Savannah Authority for the Homeless is searching for a new executive director after Cindy Kelley notified the agency’s board of directors last year of her intent to retire. Kelley has served as the executive director of the authority since January 2014. Her tenure extends through Dec. 31 and the board is hoping to have her replacement hired by the time of her retirement, according to Chairman Julian Miller.

This story also appeared in Savannah Agenda

Kelley agreed to answer some questions I recently emailed to to her regarding her time leading the organization. Below you will find the questions and her responses as submitted on Sept. 28, 2021.

When did you submit your notice?
I provided my notice to the CSAH board of directors in mid-2020. This allowed the board and the organization to do effective planning for the transition and a thorough search for a new leader.

Why did you decide to retire?
I have been leading nonprofit organizations since 1996 (CSAH is the 5th organization I have supported as an Executive Director). This work takes a lot of energy and commitment to do well. I seem to maintain this required energy for 5 to 7 years and then I recognize it is time to move on. This time though, I will be retiring and afterward, looking to share my expertise via consulting and coaching…not to make a living but to make a difference. I think leadership transition is important for organizations (allows for new ideas and any needed change). Each of us has strengths and areas of weakness/less interest. The hope is that each time a transition occurs, the nonprofit board selects a leader just ‘right’ for the organizational stage of the organization. My departure from CSAH is slightly delayed due to the demands of Covid and the Homeless Continuum of Care (COC) as well as the wrap up of the capital campaign for the Cove at Dundee (Tiny House Project).

What type of impact, challenges has the pandemic presented to the organization and homeless population?
The major impact for CSAH is that no work was reduced as a result of Covid. Rather, the team at CSAH had to provide many new activities because of Covid and yet still operate to meet all our current contact requirements. And of course, this double layer of work meant supporting our staff team working in a fragile medical environment. Our team has more than met this day to day challenge. At the beginning of the Covid outbreak, our offices at DFCS were closed, threatening our ability to serve the homeless population. To address this, we set up a tent in our parking lot and provided services out of the tent until we were able to use a small conference room in the DFCS building. Difficult times require creative methods to maintain effective services.

I believe one of your main shifts with the organization was to transition to a housing-first policy, which resulted in the construction of the first phase of the Cove at Dundee community. How do you feel this policy is going and what type of impact do you feel it is having and will have on Savannah’s homeless population?
Actually, the best practice of Housing First was/is a mandate from HUD. As CSAH is the HUD Collaborative Applicant for our Continuum of Care, our job was to bring along the Chatham area CoC to ensure our community embraced and applied Housing First practices. Simply, housing ends homelessness. As the community conversation was shifted from homelessness to the critical shortage of affordable housing, new community energy and ideas about solutions have been applied to the conversation. The need for very low rent ($300 to $500) housing is now a part of the conversation and hopefully commitments to expand this type of housing will occur among the nonprofit service providers and local government. We hoped that the tiny-house project would serve as a model for lower rent housing for the homeless. Indeed, three other homeless-serving tiny house projects in Georgia are in process, directly as a result of our work.

What other initiatives is the homeless authority developing as a way to address homelessness? The Chatham Doorways, Streets to Stability and PATH program, for instance.
Like all nonprofit organizations, CSAH grows and changes with the times. As HUD pressed our CoC to try again to develop a separate CoC board (now in place), our organization and its board had strategic discussions and planning to determine the best ways to meet mission and move into the future. The result was a division of our operations to provide clarity on both sides of our work. And, it is possible that the future will bring a separation of the two divisions if determined this works best to make both sides stronger and more successful.

Division 1 of CSAH is the Collaborative Applicant side. This division is driven by HUD contracts and related requirements. This includes the annual NOFO, Coordinated Entry, Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), working in partnership with the CoC board and Service Providers and finally, keeping up with other HUD requirements that come along the way. The Collaborative Applicant side of CSAH also includes a new program called Streets to Stability. Streets to Stability is addressing panhandling and collection/distribution of needed goods for the homeless population and the Service Provider agencies.

Division 2 of CSAH is Chatham Doorways. This is the entrepreneurial side of CSAH with a strong focus on solving homelessness one person at a time through creative housing options. These include our current housing programs (Cove at Dundee, City 54) plus street outreach (PATH), a program offered by CSAH for many years, and a developing program called Horizon Homes where we purchase and rehab one home at a time and make it available to a homeless person at very low rent ($300-$500 per month). The CSAH board has discussed possibly spinning off the Chatham Doorways side of CSAH in the future should finances allow for this option.

How would you describe the impact your organization has had overall during your years as CEO?
I think our organization has helped our CoC keep its head above water. We are the foundation organization that helps the community understand the many, many administrative demands (basically rules and regulations) put on us by primary funders such as HUD and the state of Georgia. It is not always fun or easy to be rule-bound and insist others follow the rules put on us, but it is our job! I think our biggest success during my tenure is the community conversation change that has occurred because of our work. In the past, the community conversation was always ‘what are we going to do about the homeless?’ Today, the community conversation is ‘how can we build more affordable housing for those in need?' This is success!!

What would you say to critics who say that not enough has been done to reduce the homeless population in Savannah?
I would say they are absolutely right. The primary way to reduce homelessness is to accept much more affordable housing is needed throughout Chatham County and create policy that invests in it. Period.

What advice would you give the new CEO upon his/her arrival?
Understand the uniqueness of the culture here. Don’t take the backstabbing personally. Eat well, exercise and get plenty of sleep!

Please add anything else you would like to mention for the story.
I will greatly miss the CSAH staff, board members and a number of my colleagues. Thank you to those who have been kind to me.

This story available through a news partnership with Savannah Agenda, a news website dedicated to fostering community engagement.

Eric Curl is a journalist and editor/owner of Savannah Agenda, an online news site dedicated to community engagement.