Dome Volume 60 Number 2
Hopkins opens employment doors for the homeless.
Maurice Pretto tinkers with an oximeter machine, which helps
anesthesiologists measure changes in patients’ blood volume.
Pretto is stationed at various operating rooms during surgery
in case of mechanical problems. Says Jeff Frank, clinical
engineering supervisor, “Maurice gets along with all kinds
Maurice Pretto’s modest one-bedroom apartment in Canton is minutes from Hopkins Hospital, his second home. But it wasn’t that long ago that Pretto, a biomedical engineering technician, didn’t have a roof over his head.
Pretto’s story is the stuff of movies: dirt-poor childhood in New York’s Spanish Harlem; joins the Navy to escape drugs and alcohol but finds them even more irresistible; marries a woman fighting her own addiction problems; has two sons who follow the same path and end up in and out of jail; finds himself penniless and homeless, living at Baltimore’s Helping Up Mission.
Although his path was far from straight, Pretto landed a job at Hopkins in Environmental Services in 2003 after a year of sobriety and vocational guidance. Since 2007, he’s inspected and repaired medical equipment for Weinberg, the outpatient center and the general operating room, using skills he learned on a Navy submarine and at previous jobs. “Finally,” says Pretto, 56, “I have a home, job and food on the table; I pay my bills and have a wonderful extended family at Hopkins.”
Hopkins has always had a soft spot for displaced people like Pretto, says Pamela Paulk, the hospital and health system’s vice president for human resources. Currently the hospital has 65 employees who came from shelters. About half are from the Helping Up Mission, Baltimore’s oldest and largest nonprofit shelter and recovery program. In 2001, with encouragement from Stu Erdman, senior director of finance—who volunteers as the mission’s chairman of the board—Paulk embraced the idea of hiring people from the mission and other established shelters.
It may seem risky for the hospital to hire people with a history of substance abuse and, in some cases, criminal records, but only to a point, says Paulk. Considering that 10 percent of Americans struggle with addiction at some point in their adult life, careful screening is required for any applicant.
“We take the position that folks who have experienced setbacks in their lives make dedicated employees because someone gave them the opportunity to work,” says Paulk, a social worker by training. “We all know people who have struggled at one time or another.”
Niles Ellingson, Helping Up Mission’s vocational director, has been collaborating with Paulk for almost a decade. He attributes the success of the dozens of Hopkins employees who have resided at the mission to its “therapeutic community.” For the 300-plus men living at the privately funded shelter, that model addresses every facet of recovery: 12-step meetings, one-on-one counseling, medical and legal services, GED preparation and career counseling.
But only after completing a year of sobriety and life skills coaching can someone apply for work at the hospital. And not once, says Ellingson, has he seen a graduate of the program fail a drug test. Although the men also have jobs at the mission in maintenance, kitchen duty and security, Ellingson acknowledges that employers take a leap of faith when hiring one of the men. “I applaud Hopkins,” he says, “for reaching out to our community.”
The hospital and health system donate thousands of dollars to the mission during the holiday season, not to mention proceeds from other departmental events, like Nursing’s golf outing. Meanwhile, the Department of Psychiatry has built a strong partnership with the mission, subsidizing 48 beds for homeless outpatients receiving detox treatment at the hospital. “At Helping Up, these men are living recovery,” says Gigi Rosenblatt, clinical case manager at the intensive treatment unit. “Their leadership really cares, and they hold them accountable.”
Alicia McGowan, the hospital’s career specialist in recruitment, has found applicants from the mission consistently highly motivated and respectful. “I wish all my hires could be that way,” she says. After excelling in entry-level positions, many have gone on to become OR associates, surgical techs and, like Pretto, biomedical technology techs. One is doing coursework to become an addictions counselor.
So convinced is Paulk that hiring employees with “nontraditional” backgrounds builds loyalty that she’s made it an official HR strategy. “We want to send the message that we truly hire people based on their merits—whether they’re homeless or have simply fallen on hard times.” But, she adds, “We have to be smart about it and put them in a job where they won’t fail.”
For his part, Maurice Pretto never worries about going back to his old ways. “It’s a thing of the past,” he says. These days Pretto’s biggest challenge is education. He has a high school diploma and a few college courses under his belt, but to become certified in biomedical engineering technology, he needs to fulfill a two-year associate requirement and perform two years of bench work. Although he’s concerned about finding the time to manage work and school—without a car—he knows he has the wherewithal to succeed. “I’ve come to learn that no one can stop me but me. If you stick to it, things work out.”