By Dave Ringle
St. Vincent de Paul Juneau, General Manager
I didn’t know Dan Austin well. One of his closest friends asked me to join the Juneau St. Vincent de Paul board on Father’s Day 2018. None of us knew that five weeks later, Dan would pass away. I did not know the circumstances at the time, but I have heard many stories since I came to sit at his desk. I have come to appreciate his visionary ideas of providing for the neediest with housing being the highest form of assistance. I am still in awe of the vast programs he created while he led St. Vincent de Paul in Juneau.
Dan managed St. Vincent de Paul for over 20 years. His presence in service to the neediest within Juneau was always quiet and centered on meeting needs. While St. Vincent’s started serving meals on Teal Street, the aid the agency provided soon increased. Food could calm a hungry stomach for a short time, but more was needed. Services that provided clothing and shelter soon became a priority. Dan had the vision to build shelter rooms above the thrift store on Teal Street. In the ‘90s, long before Housing First was a concept, Dan realized getting needy people help included shelter as well as food and clothing.
Once people received shelter, they could work on establishing healthier habits and work towards more positive situations. He found that working with individuals required people who focused first on relationships, then on removing the hurdles to housing that most people would not think about. Routine information like identification, Social Security cards, and ways to be contacted are not always easy for people with no place to call home. In Dan’s mind, providing the tools to get housing and supporting people once in housing was not a handout but a hand up. He built low-income housing units and family shelter rooms on Teal Street and assisted other developments.
Today, St. Vincent de Paul operates 101 housing units in Juneau, from family shelter rooms to senior housing. In our Teal Street Shelter, Paul’s Place, Strasbaugh, Hillview, Channelview, and Smith Hall residences, people ages one year to 94 are housed. We take people off the street and give them hope.
Dan’s vision extended to the needs of the community. For a while, St. Vincent’s operated a child care facility to provide affordable child care so young parents could work. It included aid to those who might otherwise lose their housing. Today, St. Vincent de Paul supports many families and individuals who have come through their housing program with emergency food or utility assistance. Our aid budget is a constant challenge to meet, yet it is vital to Dan’s vision and St. Vincent de Paul’s mission.
Dan’s relationships with those he served and those whose agencies worked with him ran deep. I saw this first hand when I was called to the hospital in April. A woman served by SVdP who was successfully housed and returned to be a regular volunteer and helper around the office had listed the St. Vincent de Paul general manager as executor of her will. I met her in the hospital and established a relationship based on her memories of him. A few changes needed to be made to her will, but I returned days later to see her one last time as her health deteriorated quickly. As I left, I received a call from the hospital’s head case manager. She thanked me for handling a dying friend’s request in a way that would have made Dan proud.
No one is perfect, and if Dan had a blind spot, it was the vast number of people and projects he was involved in that left some items unfinished. His death came too suddenly and unexpectedly. Mariya Lovishchuk, the Glory Hall shelter executive director, told me he had a hundred-burner stove going. Some pots didn’t receive the attention they deserved. Few people knew he was fighting cancer until shortly before his death. The loss left a big hole in St. Vincent de Paul without a succession plan in place and a gap in the service providers of Juneau. Grief and healing takes time.
On Sunday, July 25, we had planned to meet and remember a man who made a giant impact on many lives and on the agency he ran for so long. The upswing in COVID within our community makes such a meeting unwise at this time. This COVID crisis has left agencies scrambling to protect both those who serve and those we serve. It is a never ending challenge that will require visionary leadership to address new challenges. The economic hardships, mental health challenges, and social stress caused by the COVID pandemic will last longer than the health crisis. We will need to move forward with vision and compassion, knowing that Dan had those in abundance. We will remember and ask for the strength to continue his service within our organization and within our community.