New Union Station Programs Chief Aims to Maintain Standards, Keep Tabs on Innovations in Homeless Services

Sarah Tower manages programs she says are exemplary and vows to “stay in tune” the evolution of best practices in homeless services.

Published : Friday, August 30, 2019 | 4:46 AM

New Chief Program Officer at Union Station Homeless Services, Sarah Tower. Courtesy photo

The new chief program officer at Union Station Homeless Services, says she’ll be building on the accomplishments of her predecessor and following the ever-evolving endeavor that is caring for the most vulnerable among us.

“I’m lucky enough to be following in the footsteps of a really innovative, intelligent, connected human being, who laid a great foundation throughout the San Gabriel Valley,” said Sarah Tower of former programs manager Ryan Izell.

The programs Tower is now holding the reins of, she said, stand out in Los Angeles County as exemplary, and as the producers of positive outcomes.

“My point of departure is not just to be the caretaker and maintain the excellent services we have now,” Tower told Pasadena Now, “but to stay in tune with where things are headed in homeless services.”

Tower confirmed that the business — for lack of a better word — of homeless services has evolved and, essentially, grown in scope over time.

Just feeding people, or just giving them a bed for the night, were band-aids covering deeper problems that could only be solved through deeper, and longer involvement, by Union Station and like service providers.

Today, Union Station has four distinct branches of programming: outreach; housing; employment; and community integration. Each of which, time has shown, is necessary if the person being helped is not to end up back on the street.

“It isn’t as segmented process as it used to be and that’s because it has the elimination of homelessness as the end goal,” she explained. “We’re using a holistic and innovative approach driven by the term ‘Whatever it takes, which means really meeting people where they are at. So not only is how we handle cases a comprehensive, one-size-fits-all, but it is individualized as well.”

There are two parts to the Union Station approach, said Tower. The first is very tangible and involves the provision of services: outreach, bridge housing, supportive housing, employment services.

The second is tied to changes in homeless services strategies overall.

“The agency itself has progressed over the years,” she continued, “from doing the traditional basic services of food and shelter, to adapting to best practices and strategies that have been proven to end homelessness, which includes permanent supportive housing.”

Supportive housing refers to arrangements that provide shelter as well as on-site counseling and treatments for the ailments that are often the root causes of homelessness.

Tower’s pedigree suggests that she knows the ropes. Her prior role at Union Station was in the supportive housing program. She is, by training, a clinician and licensed social worker who got her start at The Village in Long Beach on a street medicine team.

“I had the privilege of designing programs that served the most vulnerable people on the streets of Long Beach,” she explained. “That’s where my career started.”

Back in 2005, she was working at The Village, doing “housing first” models and best practices before they were even called such in the homeless services realm.

Along the way, she oversaw The Village’s employment program. “So a lot of this is familiar to me,” said Tower, who has been at Union Station for the past four years.

“I think we’re lucky,” she observed, “to have the continuum of concrete services, where you can get a meal, you can get shelter, you can be connected to permanent housing and also those retention services afterwards that keep folks from returning into homelessness, which is a huge part of the work we do.”

Union Station’s annual report reveals an agency with total assets of $25 million and total liabilities of $5.7 million. Government grants account for 67 percent of its income, private support 23 percent, with 10 percent from “other” sources.

Some 70 percent of the money the agency collects is spent on program services, which is Tower’s bailiwick and the lion’s share of agency funding. Another 14 percent of the agency’s funding is applied to management and general expenses, and 7 percent to fundraising and special events.