While working as an executive at Time Warner Cable, Navarra Williams took the time now and then to serve meals as a volunteer at SAMMinistries.
Later, as president and CEO of the homeless prevention nonprofit, he was walking through the facility one day when someone recognized him and called out, “Hey cable guy!”
On Friday, Williams will walk out of his office for the last time to start his retirement after 13 years at SAMMinistries, an interfaith charitable organization that has been helping the homeless since 1983, but which has experienced huge shifts in the city’s homeless prevention landscape since Williams started.
Even his final days in the top post have been marked by challenges. Williams is departing at a time when, like many nonprofits, the organization is facing a potential long-term public health and economic crisis already impacting the most vulnerable in society.
“I kind of wanted to leave around my 66th birthday,” he said of his initial February target date to retire. “But then these things started happening, I was like, I can’t leave.”
But a forgivable loan from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for $750,000 is helping the organization keep operating at the same levels it had before the coronavirus outbreak.
SAMMinistries provides programs in homeless prevention services, transitional housing, rapid rehousing, veterans housing stability, and permanent supportive housing. In 2019, the organization’s homeless prevention programs kept 32,000 people in their homes, including 16,000 children.
“In addition to the PPP, we started getting some donations from folks that hadn’t given us donations before,” including a $70,000 grant from a foundation that had never supported SAMMinistries before and several other sizable gifts, making him confident the organization can persist after he retires.
Those donations are in large part due to the public’s awareness of SAMMinistries and how individuals can support the organization, Williams said. An advertising campaign, including billboards and social media, that he implemented at least six years ago has helped raise the profile of SAMMinistries programs and its efforts at fundraising to support the mission.
It is a mission Williams felt called to serve. Growing up poor in Washington, D.C., Williams earned a scholarship to attend junior college. But motivated by what he calls a “chance encounter” with an IBM executive who advised him to earn a four-year degree, Williams finished college and landed a position with IBM.
“That first job, it changed my family – my trajectory, my children’s trajectory – all because of that one five-minute conversation,” he said. “So when I finally came back here, I said I was going to run a nonprofit and I wanted to run a nonprofit that would help children.”
In 2007, the SAMMinistries board selected Williams to succeed Bob Martindale at the start of a shift in the way the community provides services for the homeless through a new nonprofit known as Haven For Hope.
With the creation of Haven, however, the shelter SAMMinistries had operated closed down and those services relocated to the Haven campus. The move eliminated the high cost of facility leases that SAMMinistries was coping with and opened new doors in the kinds of services it provided. “We were looking at new ways to do things and we had come up with a program called homeless prevention,” Williams said.
Not long after starting the program, the federal government allocated $1.5 billion for rent assistance through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The initial award to SAMMinistries of $500,000 eventually grew into $2 million.
Not only did that help provide housing for 10,000 people, including 6,000 children, during the first three years, it aided SAMMinistries in working more synergistically with Haven to solve homelessness, Williams said.
But the organization’s most comprehensive program, he said, is the transitional living and learning center at 5922 Blanco Road. During Williams’ tenure, he was able to work with philanthropist Harvey Najim, a longtime friend and former IBM colleague, to renovate the center, adding bathrooms and upgrading the library and after-school care spaces.
SAMMinistries’ permanent supportive housing program is the newest project developed with Williams at the helm. The program provides housing vouchers for people to reside in area market-rate apartment complexes.
“I grew up in the ghetto so I know what it’s like when nobody has money and everybody’s poor and you have bad habits, those sort of things,” he said. “And so it was important to make sure that we could do that and we could distribute them across the city. We’ve had good relationships with a number of organization housing organizations that help us do that.”
Williams said his greatest accomplishment while at SAMMinistries has been building a team and having that group of people “help to significantly improve the overall ministry,” he added.
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Board member Rick Rosenblum, who will lead the organization until a new leader can be hired, said a transition team will conduct an internal and external search for Williams’ successor.
“That search will look to bring in the candidate who has the vision and the ability to run an organization of this complexity, but also critically to have the empathy and the passion as Navarra has demonstrated for so long for the clients we serve [and] for the mission that we’re pursuing,” Rosenblum said.
Williams is laid back about his own future plans.
“I’ll probably take a little time to decompress and figure that out,” he said. “I have hobbies, I love to work out – it’s my favorite thing to do. And I’ll probably get involved with some other nonprofits. Maybe I’ll get on a board or two after this kind of settles out. And I’ll always continue to support SAMMinistries.”