Mission burns bright at Chicago's Harbor Light | Behavioral Healthcare Executive Skip to content Skip to navigation

Mission burns bright at Chicago's Harbor Light

December 22, 2011
by Dennis Grantham, Editor-in-Chief
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Clients change, problems change, but Salvation Army’s center remains a "house of miracles"

As executive director of the Harbor Light residential treatment center in Chicago, Captain Nancy Powers has mastered the responsibilities that come with her years of Salvation Army seminary training and her officer-level rank. On any given day, she is called to be a pastor, administrator, board governor, volunteer manager, grant writer, facility designer, or negotiator.


Captain Nancy Powers

But, she says, “On my lucky days, I get to go out and ‘get my hands dirty.’” For Powers, that means working with the homeless from the back of the Salvation Army’s mobile outreach unit, a rolling kitchen and services truck that visits 28 sites throughout Chicago, every day of the year. “The unit offers food to those who need it as a kind of catalyst, to get people to approach us. At each stop, we have a mental health counselor and a drug counselor who get out and work with the crowd: ‘What would it take to get you off the street?,’ ‘Aren’t you tired of living like this?’ ‘Can we give you a hand with getting your life together—getting a job?’”

If an individual expresses interest in “coming in,” action is immediate. “We get on the cell phone and call the ‘chaser’ van immediately, because if you don’t get those individuals in right away, you’ll lose them within the hour,” Powers explains. When people arrive at Harbor Light, “we walk them through intake and get them going [in the program] right away.”

Harbor Light offers 200 beds in all, divided between a 30-day program for residential drug and alcohol treatment, two halfway houses where clients can stay for up to six months as they learn sober living and life skills, and then, for some, residence in a “three-quarter” way house for up to two additional years. These programs are available to homeless individuals or ex-offenders, most of whom advance through Harbor Light’s transitional employment program, which offers training, employment, and sober living supports—and boasts a 70 percent success rate for seeing participants into employment and through their first six months of work. For many in the program, it’s their first successful employment experience—ever.

“A natural” with the homeless

Powers experience with serving the homeless began in her early years, growing up as the daughter of a psychiatric nurse and social worker “across the street” from Warren (Penn.) Hospital, which at that time housed some 3,000 patients. “From the time I can remember, my parents would bring home patients who didn’t have family for Christmas, for Easter, for Thanksgiving.

“Working for the homeless was a natural,” she says. “I just love them. I see so much hope.” After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in social work, she began working with the Salvation Army and, following a stint at the Salvation Army’s seminary, she attained officer rank and worked in a number of positions, including that of counselor at Harbor Light, before being named the center’s executive director more than a decade ago.

While Powers, many of her Salvation Army colleagues, and a number of Harbor Light residents are deeply motivated by faith, Powers says that Harbor Light, like other Salvation Army programs, ensures that client participation in any of its array of church services remains purely voluntary. “Any client can go through any program here without darkening the door of any church activities,” she explains, noting that because two of the center’s programs benefit from state or federal funds, the distinction is vital. All the same though, her responsibilities as the site’s pastor call her to make the site’s religious activities “so interesting, so compelling, that you’d want to be a part of them.”

“A house of miracles”

Whether or not one is a believer, it’s hard to hear about the work that goes on at the Harbor Light center without at least considering Powers’ assertion that Harbor Light is “a house of miracles.”

She recalls the story of one client: “He arrived at Harbor Light the same day that I did (as executive director) in 2001 and he’s now celebrating 11 years clean and sober. As a boy, he had a horrendous life; his father sold drugs and used his children to help. He saw a lot of ugly things and of course had no idea how to live a clean and sober life when he arrived here. But he went through all of our programs—from treatment to halfway house to ¾ way house and started working in our kitchen five years ago. Today, he’s a member of our outreach team, serving food at the back of the truck. He loves working with the people and talking to those in our programs.”

“In his life,” she continues, “he’s gone from addition, to sobriety and a job, to having his own place, to having a fiancée and planning a wedding. Recently, he even stopped smoking.”

Powers adds that others touched by the Salvation Army’s work often come back to visit, even after decades. “Every Sunday at our service, we have time for testimonies and people share their stories. It’s phenomenal. We see people who have been lost, who haven’t seen their families in 20 years get sober and then make a phone call. We see families reunited all of the time.”

“It’s a house of miracles. I just absolutely love my job because people who come in here, very, very broken are, after four or five months, walking taller, heads up, feeling good about themselves and making tremendous changes in their lives. It’s a wonderful place to be.”
The hand of Providence