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May 18, 2022
Cara Davis Taught Herself How to Be an Executive Director
Cara Davis
We mentor each other and learn from each other.
Cara Davis, executive director of Construct, Inc. in Great Barrington, which provides services and shelter for homeless families and individuals, has largely taught herself how to run a nonprofit, learning from others she has met during her career.

This is her story:

After growing up in a small town in Ohio and graduating from UPenn, I moved to the Berkshires in 1971. While studying at Andover Newton Theological School for my master’s of divinity, I interned in Stockbridge. It was my first encounter with homelessness.

By then I had separated from my husband and was waiting tables to support me and my three children. One evening, a woman who worked in the kitchen appeared at my door, quasi suicidal. We talked through the night. It turned out she lost a marriage and was living in her car, and was too ashamed to ask anyone for help. I realized she needed transitional space where she could heal emotionally, become more stable and earn more income. That’s where I got the idea for transitional housing.

I was referred to Construct and met Roy Hansen, the executive director. He invited me to look into the issue of homelessness, as there were no local shelters. At the time Construct focused on administering funds for subsidized housing. I then met Kathy Duhon, who suggested we organize a walk to raise funds. We did that in 1989, and raised $25,000 to help prevent homelessness.

The board of Construct voted to use the funds to create a shallow rent subsidy for a number of families about to become homeless. Shortly after, Roy and his staff transferred to Berkshire Housing and Kathy and I stayed behind, as did the board.

We had to rebuild, but since Construct had been around since 1970, we had a lot of community support. Every year we kept holding the walks. This fall will be our twenty-second. The last two years we raised $50,000 each year. It’s an event that people look forward to.

Our main function today is to prevent homelessness. We now own and manage 63 units of permanent affordable housing, 17 of which are set aside for people who went through our program to prevent homelessness. We also have transitional shelter for 10 people. We still do educational work, mainly job search assistance and pre-employability skills.

A key moment occurred in 1995. I gave a talk at Rotary and a bank president came up to me and said the bank owns a house that it doesn’t need. He said he didn’t want to be a landlord and suggested we use it for a family. A month later he offered a house in foreclosure that could handle two families. People were falling out of housing and we wanted to keep them in south county.

By 1998 we started to look for a building to shelter single men. That was to help youth addicted to heroin and other substances, in south county, who couldn’t go home and were living in the streets. We developed a very structured program geared to the homeless. The idea is to give them life skills. Even if they have no employment goals, we get them involved as a volunteer in the community.

Two years later, we realized we still lacked enough affordable housing. We pulled together professionals, citizens, town officials, builders, and architects into a housing coalition. We knew that if we didn’t do anything, families would leave. We paid a professional to study the housing stock and then informed each town about its stock of affordable housing. Stockbridge called us back and said they wanted a project. That resulted in a 30-unit affordable housing project.

The clients themselves are my teachers. It’s what gets me up every morning and brings me in here. When I see how much trauma is experienced by the threat of homelessness, it is just so costly to the individuals and the community. In our wealthy nation, and especially out here in western Massachusetts, it’s ridiculous that we have almost an underclass.

Over time we have become much more comprehensive in our approach to homelessness. My staff—some have been with me for 10 years—has gotten better at breaking through barriers. So many barriers get in the way and wear people down and slow them down when they are homeless.

We’ve had to pick it up as we go. We learn from each other, sharing best practices with other professionals and service providers in the county. Now we’re getting our staffs to meet to learn and grow from each others’ experiences. We mentor each other and learn from each other.

Client progress tells us how well we’re doing. We have measurable outcomes based on setting goals for how many shelter residents will find employment, increase income, save money, life develop skills, and participate in counseling. We help them try to achieve their goals. Some flunk out, but 80% generally go back into housing – either new housing or returning to housing.

As told to Peter Lowy, April 2010.
Learn more about the Construct, Inc. by clicking here.
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