Up with people: But On Our Own dollars down
"We're not a flophouse," says Will Gallik. Since he took over running On Our Own four years ago, Gallik makes clear that no sleeping or drugs are allowed in the place once better known as the Drop-In Center.
Located in a house on 4th Street, the old incarnation gave the homeless space to hang, get a shower or a meal– and a place where drunk or high street people could sleep it off.
Today, the nonprofit is trying to clean up its image. Its letterhead makes no mention of the previous name, and the organization is trying to emphasize its primary mission: the mentally ill helping each other. "We don't have services for substance abuse," says Gallik.
"A lot of people were afraid to come in here because people were abusing the center," says Debbie Smith, an On Our Own coordinator. "There were people with serious drug problems."
For 15 years, On Our Own has run on a shoestring budget. This year Gallik applied for funding from Charlottesville and Albemarle County, and got a polite "no thanks" from each.
Gallik thinks perhaps they were turned down because On Our Own breaks the traditional mental health mold. Instead of trained experts, it features daily support groups composed of peers.
It gets some funding from Region Ten, but Gallik explains the difference in the approach.
"Region Ten cannot provide the peer support we do because it's run by professionals," he says. In a peer-run program like On Our Own, on the other hand, the illness is considered just one part of the person. "Consumers can say we know what's best for us," says Gallik.
Debbie Smith is angry that the city and county refused to bolster the organization's $160,000 budget that serves over 500 people a year.
"Every nonprofit in the city gets funding," she complains. "We're doing a lot of new things."
But getting approval for new funding requests is tough, particularly when City Manager Gary O'Connell said no new funding in this year's budget. City Council overruled him and did approve money for a new Legal Aid program for low-income seniors and the Boys and Girls Club. "Our priorities are after-school programs," explains Mayor David Brown of the latter.
Brown says that rather than let local agencies plead to City Council for funding, the city and the county prefer to receive guidance from the Commission on Children and Families, which makes recommendations to both.
So why would On Our Own's request for $4,400 yield nothing while Region Ten will receive $13,000 more than the $440K it got last year from Albemarle?
"This is a new program coming in with no urgency for funding," explains Assistant County Executive Roxanne White. "There wasn't a great indication why the city and county needed to jump in."
White notes that first-time funding requests are rarely approved.
"We'd encourage [On Our Own] to come in and talk to us ahead of time," she suggests. "And ask themselves, 'What do I need to do to make this application better?'"
Meanwhile, the staff at On Our Own has one very urgent problem: no place to park. They'd been parking for free at Staples, but recently got booted by the property owner and are now doing the two-hour shuffle.
Perhaps that's a use for nearby Jefferson School.
On Our Own is trying to rehabilitate its image and score some funding from local government to help the homeless, 90 percent of whom have a mental illness, according to a staffer.
PHOTO BY LINCOLN ROSS BARBOUR