Someone should give Mark Swann a medal.

And later this month, someone just might.

“The word I keep using to describe it is ‘overwhelming,’” said Swann, the longtime executive director of Preble Street, over a hot cup of coffee Thursday morning. “It’s been kind of a whirlwind couple of days.”

First the news: This week, the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation released its list of 20 finalists for three “Citizen Service Before Self Honors.”

Bestowed annually, the awards go to “ordinary Americans who become extraordinary through their indomitable courage and selflessness.”

People like Swann.

“He has changed more lives and saved more lives than we will probably ever know,” said U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who nominated Swann for the award.

Known to his many friends as “Swannie,” he came to Portland in 1991 armed with a master’s degree in public policy from the University Massachusetts and a short stint as director of social services for a Boston-based refugee resettlement program.

A former classmate from Bowdoin College, where Swann spent his undergraduate years, had told him about a “tiny” social service agency in Portland that was looking for an executive director. Swann, all of 28 with a ponytail running halfway down his back, figured what the heck and applied.

His friend was right: Founded in 1975 by the late Joe Kreisler, who ran the social work program at the University of Southern Maine, the Preble Street Resource Center had limped along for 16 years as a training ground for USM social work students in need of internships.

With only two paid staffers (including the executive director) and a handful of USM students, it provided a soup kitchen, a rudimentary health clinic and whatever other services it could muster out of a church basement just up the street from the agency’s current location.

“It was a very undignified space, to say the least,” Swann recalled.

But it was a start.

Fast forward to today.

Preble Street, which simplified its name a few years ago because it has long been synonymous with its location, now boasts 110 full-time employees and 85 part-timers.

Its annual operating budget, a mere $110,000 when Swann took over, is now $6.4 million — roughly half of which comes from the private sector.

And its programs?

There’s the day center on Preble Street for homeless adults, and the nearby teen center on Cumberland Avenue. Each has its own soup kitchen.

There’s Florence House on Valley Street, a haven for homeless women. It’s named after Florence Young — one of Preble Street’s first staffers.

There’s Logan Place on Frederic Street. It’s home to 30 residents, almost all men, who might otherwise wake up each morning in the city’s Oxford Street Shelter or worse.

There’s the Homeless Voices for Justice project, the food pantry on Oxford Street, the Connect Team, which has a 95 percent success rate keeping homeless kids from becoming homeless adults …

In short, where once there was an overcrowded church basement, there’s now a 24/7 lifeline for those whose demons — mental illness, addiction, simple poverty — might otherwise leave them at death’s door.

Let’s pause for a moment while some readers’ heads explode. Preble Street, they’ll inevitably scream, is part of a “welfare state” that traps people in poverty and perpetuates Maine’s “culture of dependency” and blah … blah … blah …

To which Swann respectfully suggests they come for a visit.

“It’s an easy way, to explain away poverty and homelessness,” he said. “They say, ‘They’re not our people. They’re not our neighbors. It’s somebody else. They’re taking advantage of us.’“

Swann has attended too many memorial services inside Preble Street’s soup kitchen — “I’ve been to hundreds,” he says — to believe a word of it.

“The indignities that people go through daily just to get through a day are extraordinarily tragic,” he said.

And when he hears that Preble Street offers no long-term solutions, he points to the 30 onetime homeless adults who now live at Logan Place.

Ongoing research by Preble Street shows that after one year off the streets, Logan Place’s residents prompted 81 percent fewer police calls, and 67 percent fewer ambulance trips and emergency room visits.

They also posted a 53 percent decrease in substance abuse treatment and 88 percent fewer days in jail, to name but a few improvements in their (and thus the city’s) quality of life.

And while it indeed costs more to house those folks at Logan Place, Swann said, the bottom line shows they’re costing taxpayers less than if they were still on the street.

Culture of dependence? How about a much-needed escape hatch?

“If you really talk to us and look at our data and our research, we can show we are part of a solution,” Swann said. “Beyond the soft and fuzzy individual stories, we can show from a cost-benefit basis the success of these programs.”

Still, this week’s news from the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation is about much more than who here in Portland pays how much for what. What put Swann on the short list for a prestigious national award, above all, is his heart.

“I think he really derives an enormous amount of pleasure out of taking care of people who wouldn’t otherwise be spoken for,” said Maurice “Cito” Selinger III, president of Preble Street’s board of directors. “Deep in his core, deep in his soul, he feels that’s a worthwhile use of his time.”

Make that two decades — and counting — of his time.

Swannie’s ponytail is long gone. He’s 49 now, and his hair has turned salt-and-pepper gray.

And while Preble Street has grown from what he calls “hippies in a basement” to a model of community compassion, what brought Swann here all those years ago is what keeps him here today.

“People deserve a chance,” he said, finishing his coffee. “That’s what we try to offer people — just a chance.”

Enough said.

Give that man a medal.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]

 


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