Backed by T.D. Jakes and Tony Evans, Dallas LIFE Director Hopes to Sell Accountability Program to Homeless Shelters Nationwide

Tom Fox/Staff Photographer Bob Sweeney hopes to sell his New LIFE program, which provides mentorship and demands accountability to help the homeless get back on track, to shelters nationwide.
Tom Fox/Staff Photographer
Bob Sweeney hopes to sell his New LIFE program, which provides mentorship and demands accountability to help the homeless get back on track, to shelters nationwide.

In 1999, everything began to unravel for Sandy Vitatoe.

Her mother, husband, brother and son died within a span of two years. She turned to cocaine and couldn’t hold a steady job.

But the Louisiana native began tying her life back together in 2005 with the help of a program at the Dallas LIFE homeless shelter.

Bob Sweeney, the shelter’s executive director, hopes to see Vitatoe’s success replicated, and he’s taking an unorthodox step to make that happen: He is copyrighting the New LIFE program, with plans to sell it to small- and medium-size shelters nationwide.

Sweeney started New LIFE about 15 years ago at a shelter in Flint, Mich., and brought it to Dallas LIFE in 2005.

The 10-month program, which is free, is rigidly structured, provides mentorship for participants and demands accountability from them.

“It’s a program for those who no longer want to be homeless,” Sweeney said. “To us it’s all about change. If you don’t want change, you can find out very, very soon.”

The shelter’s 100,000-square-foot facility can house up to 500 people a night. It includes 50 dorm-style rooms for families and serves more than a thousand meals a day.

Participants take classes such as cooking and budgeting, apply for at least 60 jobs a month and seek permanent housing.

New LIFE participants “graduate” if they find full-time employment, obtain permanent housing or are enrolled in college or vocational school.

Vitatoe is one of the program’s success stories. New LIFE, she says, “gave her the right tools” to get on track. Today, she is the Dallas LIFE shelter’s security supervisor, and she lives in a three-bedroom Dallas house that she bought in 2012.

Shelter executives say nearly 70 percent of the program’s participants reach at least one of the benchmarks for graduation.

Not about money

Once copyrighted, shelters will be able to buy the program in a package of workbooks, videos and training sessions. Sweeney hopes to pitch the program to at least three shelters by the end of 2015.

“It costs money to implement. That’s true of any program,” Sweeney said. “So if you find one that’s effective, why not take some dollars that went toward things that didn’t work before and attempt to purchase one that does?”

Sweeney and Michael Westbrooks, chairman of the board for Dallas LIFE, said they had “no idea” exactly how much the program would cost, but Sweeney estimated it could be tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the shelter and the level of support ordered.

Sweeney envisions pitching the program to key donors, municipal decision makers and shelter executives. No decision has been made about which cities to target first.

Westbrooks said selling the program is attractive as a revenue source for Dallas LIFE to finance capital improvements and expand operations. But the main purpose of franchising is to “be a blessing to these other shelters that just need the help.”

“This isn’t something that would be palatable if it was really expensive,” Westbrooks said. “It would be an extension of the charity.”

Sweeney also insisted franchising is not “about a money thing.”

“The bottom line in most businesses is dollars. The bottom line in our business is change,” he said. “If change is your goal and you see change, it beats the amount of what any paycheck could ever be.”

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SOURCE: Dallas Morning News – Michael Marks

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