Wayne and Molly Hughes have given what is likely the largest single private donation toward affordable housing in Teton County.
Through their Hughes Charitable Foundation, they have given the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust $10 million to support the development of housing for human service workers. That includes the members of the Human Services Council — organizations that provide counseling and other social services — as well as law enforcement agencies.
“We wanted to do something meaningful to support our community’s safety net workers,” the Hugheses said in a statement Tuesday. “They are the unseen heroes of our community, and we want to help ensure that they can continue to meet our community’s needs in perpetuity.”
The donation will allow the Housing Trust to accelerate upcoming projects, Executive Director Anne Cresswell said. A Housing Trust press release Tuesday said groundbreaking would be in 2022, with units available by 2023.
The twin crises of the coronavirus pandemic and the housing shortage have dealt a blow to human services nonprofits. The donation, industry leaders say, validates the work they’ve been doing to keep vulnerable community members safe despite budget cuts from state and federal funding sources.
“It’s like we’re constantly slapped down, so I feel like this gift was so uplifting,” said Sarah Cavallaro, executive director of Teton Youth and Family Services. “It’s like someone sees what we’re doing.”
Like many businesses in Teton County, human services nonprofits have struggled in recent months to retain and hire workers. To match rising salaries in the for-profit world, Cavallaro said, many are paying more, which stretches their budgets thin, but some are having trouble even with increased salaries.
“We’re having more difficulty hiring this spring and summer than we’ve ever had before,” One22 Executive Director Sharel Lund said. “And I think it’s safe to say several staff members are in a fairly tenuous housing situation.”
Housing appears to be the underpinning of the workforce problems in the human services sector. Rents are rising, and with inventory dwindling, employees are forced to move to neighboring communities, though housing inventory is limited across the region.
Some organizations are still ramping up from limiting their services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Children’s Learning Center still has reduced hours, eight to the 10 it was open prepandemic, and the staff at Senior Center of Jackson Hole is trying to balance reopening the building to the public with continuing to offer things like curbside service for meals.
Senior Center Executive Director Becky Zaist said that’s all happening while she can’t fill open positions.
“We have senior staff stepping up and shouldering extra duties, working longer hours and doing extra duties to keep delivering the services,” she said.
The realities of human services organizations were on Cavallaro’s mind when she and her husband, Andy, the executive director of the Community Safety Network, sat down for lunch with Wayne and Molly Hughes.
When the Hugheses asked the Cavallaros what the biggest need in their sector was, they replied that it was housing. Without a stable workforce, the nonprofits have to limit services, which impacts people across Teton County.
“That’s destabilizing our community,” Sarah Cavallaro said. “It means employees can’t go to work because they’re maybe staying home with their elderly parent. The ripple effect is so huge.”
Though most of the nonprofit leaders who talked to the News&Guide said they are doing their best to maintain levels of service right now, the specter the housing crisis has raised is that they one day won’t be able to. Andy Cavallaro said that the Community Safety Network, which offers shelter and services for victims of intimate partner violence, sexual abuse and stalking, would need to decide what its “essential services” are were that to happen.
Lund said the same about One22, which offers a bevy of assistance to low-income workers and the Latino community.
“If we don’t make a significant move or figure out as a community how to do this, then the downstream effect is that the services are going to go away,” Sarah Cavallaro said.
The Hughes’ gift is a massive investment, though it won’t entirely solve the problem. At the Housing Trust, Cresswell hopes that it can be a catalyst for continued work on housing the essential workers whose services may not always be visible.
“It’s an issue that affects every single person in this community,” she said. “I suspect that the Hugheses want this to be a wakeup call.”