A career tackling problems home and abroad
After spending 13 years in the Foreign Service trying to save the world, Lisa Tepper Bates made a career change that for the last five years has had her heading an organization that works to save state residents from the wretched existence that is homelessness.
She has had a good run.
Bates’ work for the State Department had meant a career largely spent abroad, but it was during a trip back to her “home base” of Washington D.C. that she had a personal epiphany.
“I came to understand that there were these incredible issues in the United States that were not getting the attention that they deserved. Issues of poverty, issues of lack of opportunity. And part of me felt, ‘I’ve had the benefit of a really good education. I’ve had the benefit of never being hungry.’ I felt a duty to change the focus of my public service and to repay this country some of what it’s given to me.”
Bates, 49, is the wife of Connecticut Deputy Secretary of the State Scott Bates, who also serves as chairman of the Democratic Town Committee in Stonington, where the couple lives in the borough with their 11-year-old son. Scott Bates also chairs the Connecticut Port Authority.
The couple met in 2001 when the State Department assigned both to the Balkan Peninsula, then a hotbed of sectarian unrest. Having grown up on a Colorado farm, she recalled finding her husband’s description of New England village life in the Mystic area appealing. Bates said she has since fallen in love with the place she now calls home.
Her work as executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness has convinced Bates that there is no more critical need than housing.
“Housing is incredibly powerful and, if you can do one thing for people who are struggling, it is to address that housing issue,” she said.
To prepare for her career change in tackling domestic social issues, Bates applied and was accepted at the Yale School of Management, obtaining an MBA with a focus on nonprofit management. Her first job thereafter was working as director of the Mystic Area Shelter and Hospitality center, since remained Always Home.
Working at the “MASH,” Bates learned of and developed many of the ideas she would pursue as executive director of the Coalition to End Homelessness. CCEH has more than 75 members – emergency shelter providers, transitional housing providers, community and business leaders, and strategic partners – all working to end homelessness.
Bates said experience taught her that the best way to attack homelessness is to prevent it in the first place. Once a person has no home, the challenges grow significantly.
“The providers here (in southeastern Connecticut) have led the way and actually help eight out of every 10 families who present to them believing that they have to enter emergency shelter, instead find a housing solution that allows them to avoid homelessness. That’s groundbreaking,” she said.
Great strides have also been made, said Bates, in improving communication and coordination among various human services groups to help families and individuals find resources so they can escape homelessness.
Working with the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Evonne Klein, commissioner of the state Department of Housing, CCEH’s efforts during Bates’ five years in charge have helped drive a 34 percent drop in homelessness. Other states are coming to Connecticut to find out what it is doing right, Bates said.
In 2015, Connecticut became the second state to achieve federal recognition for ending homelessness among veterans. The designation does not mean there are never any homeless veterans, but instead recognizes that Connecticut, once it identifies a homeless veteran, is able to place that person in housing relatively quickly, Bates explained.
The coalition announced in May that Bates would be leaving, which brought her past work to my attention. She has since agreed to stay through mid-August to give CCEH time to find a replacement. Bates called her pending departure a personal decision. She wants to spend more time with her son and family and sought a job with more schedule flexibility and the ability to work from home.
Bates will be joining a small agency that provides consulting work to nonprofits.
“Working to address the needs of Connecticut’s most vulnerable residents has been a great honor,” she said. “And I am grateful to have been part of such a remarkable coalition.”
She’ll be a tough act to follow.
Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.
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