JoAnne Page works with one of the toughest populations to house—people who have been incarcerated.

JoAnne Page (Photo: Melanie Buford)
JoAnne Page (Photo: Melanie Buford)

President and CEO of The Fortune Society, she leads a nonprofit that houses close to 500 people and provides services to about 5,000 each year in New York City. The organization operates Fortune Academy, better known as the Castle, an emergency and transitional housing residence for about 60 formerly homeless individuals with a history of incarceration. More recently, it opened Castle Gardens, a 114-unit permanent housing development for Fortune clients and other low-income families.

A graduate of Yale Law School, she has led The Fortune Society for 26 years.

Where does your interest in civil rights and criminal justice come from?

I was born into it. My dad and my mom are concentration camp survivors. My dad was in a subsidiary camp of Dachau. My mother got out, but her family didn’t.  I was raised with the issues of social justice in the air I breathed. I started doing volunteer work in prisons when I was 18. I found my life’s calling. I’m 61 now. To find something that you love, that ties in with your values, that gives you a career where you are waking up and doing work that matters to you, I feel very lucky.

What does the organization have planned for 2016?

I would really like to see us start another building. That more than anything else because it’s magic to see what happens when people who haven’t known a safe and nurturing place to live all of sudden are in a place where they can blossom. It’s amazing, just amazing.

We just received a grant from Deutsche Bank that we’re very excited about. It’s about piloting a different kind of housing. We’re calling it Just In Time Housing. When you look at people who are homeless, a lot of them have special needs and would be eligible for permanent supportive housing, but they can languish in shelters or street homelessness for a long time before they can get into it, or they can be lost altogether. With Deutsche Bank’s help, we’re creating six more beds in the Castle. We’re going to be able to take people in immediately, help them get stable, and work on the eligibility process so they go from living with us to the permanent supportive housing they are eligible for. We think the six beds will probably be able to serve 18 people over the span of a year. We’re going to be looking for very vulnerable people for whom this is the next step. That means they don’t have to languish in a shelter or on the streets while they’re waiting to get in. This is the project that lights my eyes right now.

Please tell me about the residents in your housing.

For our affordable housing, it’s low-income families primarily. We have a couple of studios, but it’s mostly families. What was so interesting is that when we bought the Castle, we bought the empty lot behind it as well. We were thinking we were going to do more housing for our population. We built a community advisory board that included people who opposed us being there because of who we serve. By the time we were ready to build on the empty lot, they were saying we need housing, too. We ended up creating mixed housing because the community members on our advisory board said they needed it, and they needed it family size. We have three-bedrooms in the mix.

On the supportive side, it’s mostly a male population, formerly homeless or formerly incarcerated. We’re developing a NORK, a “naturally occurring retirement community,” because we have people who grew older while they were incarcerated. We have some people who are aging in place. As we do this, our model keeps evolving as the needs of our clients keep evolving.

How hard is it for the population you serve to find housing?

It’s hard in a number of ways. It’s hard because of the discrimination in all types of housing—affordable, supportive, private, market, housing authority. Every place where people can live there’s discrimination based on record not based on risk, which is very different. People hit enormous discrimination. The other issue is in a city like New York affordable housing is so scarce. When people come out of incarceration they are struggling to find jobs. The jobs they find don’t pay the rent for market-rate housing. Also, people are coming out of pretty traumatic situations. They’re struggling with their own issues as well.

Share with us a statistic or story about your housing.

We have been running the Castle, which is emergency and long-term transitional housing, since 2002. We’ve had two parole officers over the life of the project. When the first retired after many years, he said he had the lowest recidivism rate, the lowest rate of people returning to prison of any caseload in New York state.

The Fortune Society recently filed a lawsuit against property owners who had a blanket ban on renting to people with criminal records. Why take this step?

We’re two things. We are a service organization, and we serve well over 5,000 people a year. We’re also an advocacy agency. Our goal is to remove as many of the barriers as we can that keep people from coming home in a way that makes them an asset to their communities. We’ve put energy into employment discrimination and housing discrimination. What we had here was a landlord who was doing what we call blanket discrimination. If you have a record, you couldn’t get in. It didn’t matter how old. It didn’t matter if you were any current risk. Because we lock up such a disproportionate percentage of people of color, if you do blanket discrimination based on record, you’re really doing blanket discrimination based on race as well. We’re making a fair housing argument. The Supreme Court recently affirmed that disparate impact is grounds for a lawsuit. What we have when we have discrimination against people with records regardless of risk is disparate impact.

You’ve said that you believe nonprofits are at great risk right now. What do you mean?

We saw one of the biggest, oldest, well-established nonprofits go under. That was FEGS (Federation Employment & Guidance Service). They were a primary provider for people with disabilities. What they dealt with is something all of us are struggling with. What we are seeing much more is government paying only part of the cost of a service. We’re seeing later and later payments, which means we rely on a line of credit, and we end up paying interest to the banks that we can’t get back. We’re seeing huge sets of demands around infrastructure like having a solid information system, a strong finance department.  As the demands keep going up, the willingness to pay for that keeps going down. You’re seeing organizations really stretched. I worry because some of the really important organizations that serve the poorest people, the first place that the government turns to at a time like Hurricane Sandy or the economic crisis, are going to go under. It’s a very tough time to be running a nonprofit right now. I worry that some really important organizations won’t be here in a few years. We’re doing what we need to do make sure Fortune is around, but it’s going to mean hard choices. I think there will be services we’re doing now that we won’t be doing a year from now because we can’t afford to subsidize them.

Describe your leadership style.

It’s had to change. When I started I had to be very hands-on. I remember writing proposals and sleeping in the office at night. Now, I think my job is building strong, strong leadership in the organization. I’ve been here 26 years. I’m 61. I’m thinking succession although I don’t intend to leave for quite a while. How do you build the strength to run an organization with over 200 staff? You can’t do it the way you ran one with 22. I’ve shifted to see myself as a builder of strength in the agency and building leadership in the agency. I’m very proud of the team at Fortune. 

What else would you like to achieve in your career?

Another building. I would also love to see some of the barriers against discrimination go down.