Concierge Interview: Michael McKee

September 9, 2015

Meet Michael McKee, BSM’s first dedicated Case Manager, or what we call a “Concierge.” With a strong background in journalism and communications, Michael came to us a volunteer and quickly understood the importance of all the services here at Broad Street Ministry. Read on to find out more about our Concierge Services and how he is making a difference in the lives of our guests.

Tell us a little about yourself, Michael.

I consider west Philly home, having lived there off and on since 1995. I went to Temple University for journalism, scoring a partial scholarship alongside former Daily News gossip columnist Dan Gross, arguably my one claim to fame. After three years of living in California, working with conscientious objectors, I returned home eager to work in direct service to regular, everyday people. The punchline– and the blessing–there being that very few people are “regular” or “everyday” once you spend some time around them.

Although I first started volunteering with Bethesda Project, it only took a few months before I decided to check out the church with the big red doors next door to my old classroom. I volunteered with the mail service one Tuesday afternoon, and was hooked immediately.

What are Concierge Services and why is it so important to our guests?

We use the term “concierge” rather than “case manager” for a few different reasons. For one, we think language is important, and our guests are just that—guests in this space we’re creating to offer hospitality. Thinking of our guests as “cases” to be managed, or problems to be solved, isn’t very hospitable.

The idea of a “concierge” is also a bit of a blank slate for our guests—some of whom come to us with experiences lending them a jaded view of traditional “case management.” We recognized early on that it was important to adapt what we do to meet who and where our guests are in terms of their strengths, their priorities, and the goals they share with us.

While I have yet to score anyone theatre tickets, the concierge piece of what we do is not just a clever name. Walking in to a place like Broad Street, welcoming though it may be, can overwhelm some guests. So, it’s important for people to be able to ask to see someone who can help orient them to the services we offer and go from there.

The Concierge Service is also important because it allows for follow-up. Many of our guests are already connected to some supports or visit with our partner providers, such as our nurses or legal clinic. However, without any structured way of keeping them connected, sometimes weeks or months would go by, and these same guests would miss an appointment, or miss an important piece of mail, or be confused by the crucial next steps, and then all that progress would quickly unravel. Our concierges serve as an additional—and sometimes cheerfully relentless—link between our guests and the social services they have made a connection with.

Meanwhile, our fluid approach connects the dots between the various services BSM offers—from the mail to personal care, the meals, our menders and partners—to enhance the feeling of community and opportunity. Looking at it piecemeal, these silo’d services have a certain value, but when guests recognize the “one-stop shop” opportunity, and see that we’re willing to work “for” them rather than “on” them, I think they participate more fully.

Take me through a typical day.
I have yet to have a “typical” day at Broad Street, and I hope that never changes. On any given day, I can depend on interacting with between ten and 20 or more guests. Some of these can be just casual check-in’s, although I consider those just as important as the more sophisticated interactions where we are specifically working together on a housing application because this is how personal relationships are established. But, generally by the time I’ve walked down the street to the front doors, I’ve already met at least one or two folks who want to discuss something. By the time we open our doors, there are usually a handful of people who’ve let me know what my day will look like. Every day there are questions ranging from “How do I change my primary care doctor?” to “How do I find somewhere to sleep tonight?,” and often times, this is a matter of helping guests clarify and focus the goals they already have partially formed in their mind.

More and more we are seeing people who have recently come home from incarceration and are trying to navigate the dozen or so “little steps” it takes to gain some stability. This is a really humbling and yet rewarding component of what we do because it’s an important opportunity to just say “Welcome home” and make someone feel there IS a place here for them and that there IS hope ahead, despite the challenges they have on their plate.

We use words like ‘trauma-informed’ and ‘theory of change.’ What do those mean to you and why is it important to our guests?

The terms we use, I imagine, aren’t actually very important to our guests most of the time. But if we believe in the idea of language “speaking something into being,” then what we mean by these phrases is the most important thing about us. A mission without a mission statement isn’t a very good mission, after all.

Behind the scenes we use these words to clarify our response to guests who are going through incredibly trying situations. In fact, at the time we meet them, a lot of our guests are stuck—or feeling like they’re stuck—in a very vulnerable situation. And, sadly, for many people, this has been the rule rather than the exception of their experience: community violence, the stress of poverty and uncertainty, scarcity around basic needs, brutal neglect, sexual and physical abuse, deteriorating social networks—these are prolonged experiences of intense hardship, and they affect the way people think, react, hope and despair.

So, just recognizing that makes a huge difference. Treating everyone as a one-dimensional victim does no one any good. But, treating everyone who walks in our door—as a guest, a visitor, a volunteer, a coworker—with the acknowledgment that these hardships are ubiquitous and that we never know quite what someone else is struggling with, that does inform a different approach. I see our jobs as responding to some of the wounds people carry on them in a way that nurtures a sense of self-worth, self-agency and hope—the idea, even if it feels improbable in the moment, of saying, “I Am! Somebody!” (Apologies, Jesse Jackson, for cribbing the line there.)

Can you tell me about a time that you personally impacted the life of a guest?

I’ve been lucky enough to be there for some powerful moments with our guests. There have been a number of instances where I think it’s been helpful for our guests to know that someone else is paying attention and keeping tabs on the goals they’ve vocalized. “You want someone to go with you to that doctor’s appointment on Friday?”, or, “I know you got that thing coming up, want me to set up a meeting with a lawyer beforehand?” or simply celebrating with someone when they’ve finally received a birth certificate or benefits they’ve been waiting for.

Most of our guests are incredibly gracious and they’re not shy about saying thank you—if anything they give us too much credit! Here’s an excerpt from a letter we received just this week: “Thank you for allowing me to have something I thought I would not have—a place where people come together to help the ones who are in need and give advice … You are like family to some because family they never had. “

Because our approach is so relationship based, I feel like connections are made every day. After all, it’s hard for people to sit through a visit to the emergency room or to help a young family move in to their first apartment and not feel as though you’re all impacting each other’s lives.

Tell me the top 3 things you’ve learned while working as a Concierge at BSM.

First off, I’ve learned it’s important to look beyond the narrow, key-hole picture we sometimes get when we only see people in one specific situation. There’s a tendency to fall into this view of our guests as people down on their luck, sad people with sad, painful lives, when of course people are three-dimensional, with likes, dislikes, people who love them, unexpected pasts, skills, in-jokes, pet peeves and, like anyone else, occasional joy. No one wants to be treated like a caricature.

Secondly, I’ve learned that contrary to some first impressions, some behavior that might look strange to someone who’s always had a comfortable home and a freezer full, is actually very rational for life on the streets. People are incredible survivors, not just resilient in the long-run, but clever problem solvers in their daily-do. It would take me months to figure out some of the tricks of the trade our guests are able to suss out fairly quickly.

And lastly, I’ve learned that doing this kind of work is a great way to have a better sense of your community, neighborhood and city. I notice and recognize people, resources and how ostensibly public space is organized much more acutely than I ever did before.

How do you know you’re doing a good job of helping our guests?

One indicator of performance is simply that a newer guest keeps coming back. While many folks walk in our doors hoping for something to eat, “success” to me can mean that someone feels welcome and invested in Broad Street Ministry as a community center, or to put it another way, as an epicenter of their community. The hard data and the anecdotal stories paint a similar picture in different ways: the more someone feels connected here, the more regularly they visit, and the more likely they are to move towards more stability in terms of getting benefits, getting shelter, getting medical attention, and taking committed steps towards their other goals, which for some can be recovery from addiction, or finding a job, or simply getting ID which opens the door to many supportive programs.

How do you see the Concierge Services expanding in the future?

With the addition of our second concierge, Geremi James, the program has already expanded exponentially, and I feel like we are on track to introduce additional concierges within the next year. Meanwhile, the mere fact that this service exists at Broad Street Ministry now has made a big splash. We are seeing a steady influx of new visitors who have heard, either word-of-mouth, or through being referred by another agency, that Broad Street is “worth checking out ‘cuz they can really help you”—to borrow a phrase from one of our guests.

But, separate from the sheer numbers, I see Concierge Services as expanding in terms of the breadth of services we are able to meaningfully able to help guests with.
The partnerships and successes we’ve been building since April along the lines of “returning citizens” and workforce development make me optimistic about the year to come.

We are so happy to have Michael, and all the Concierge Team, as part of the BSM family. Their impactful work with our guests is showing it’s success.