Ralph Plumb Title:

President and chief executive

Organization:

Union Rescue Mission of Los Angeles

Born:

1953;Waterbury, Conn.

Education:

B.A. in communications, Oral Roberts University; Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary

Career Turning Point:

Missions to Turkey (1971) and India (1975)

Most Admired Person:

No one person

Hobbies:

Traveling, international affairs and family

Personal:

Married, two children

New head of the Union Rescue Mission pushes partnerships with businesses, philanthropic community to help homeless

Since taking over as president and chief executive of Union Rescue Mission of Los Angeles in July, Ralph Plumb has become responsible for a program that each year accommodates 350,000 overnight stays, sees 750,000 people for medical services and serves 850,000 meals. Union Rescue Mission is a private, nonprofit organization established in 1891. It has a staff of 100 professionals and hundreds of volunteers who contribute 63,756 hours each year.

Plumb grew up in Connecticut with the All-American dream of working on Madison Avenue. He was studying advertising at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa when he went on a humanitarian mission to Turkey in 1971 and to India in 1975. The trips changed his career trajectory. The poverty he saw on those missions awoke in Plumb a desire to help people. He has traveled to 90 countries for missionary work and has developed or managed programs in South Africa, Honduras and Vietnam.

Question:

How can you use your new position to improve the lives of people in need?

Answer: I want us, as an organization, to be a better advocate for people in need. I want to commission a blue ribbon panel to really get some accurate and current information on the number that we see in our program. The number of street kids in Los Angeles, of women and children, varies. I want to be an advocate for the homeless and be a voice for them in corridors of power and influence.

Q: You said 400 people slept here last night (Aug. 1) and that's unusual for the first week of a month. What's going on?

A: There are many opinions. The economic slowdown is affecting individuals. There's less employment for the underemployed. There's fewer extra personnel in service industry sectors. Then there's the further squeeze on affordable housing; fewer landlords renewing Section 8 contracts with HUD. They can get the renters they need without getting government subsidized funding, so there's fewer low-income or transitional housing opportunities so more of them are going out on the streets.

Q: Are developers and landlords not living up to their social obligations?

A: I'm certain there are intentional villains in the mix. But the competition, for even the marginal housing, puts the people already on the bubble into the street because the masses coming into the pipeline push them over the edge.

Q: Is there a way out of poverty?

A: There's a way out for the individuals who have the will and are fortunate enough to find the capacity to do that. I have no sense of crusadership or obligation or anything to eradicate poverty and injustice, but I can help someone who's homeless and needs a job.

Q: Does the homeless population change over time?

A: It does change. My colleagues say there is a 60 percent increase in the number of women and children. It's amazing there are that many kids on the street. What are the societal issues? Well, increase in population, increase in density, and there's a bigger gap between those with employment and resources and those that don't.

Q: Is it possible to eradicate poverty and homelessness?

A: I think it's part of the human condition. I don't see, politically or economically, an ever-increasing improvement in our society. I see the need to sensitize and awaken the resource community to the poverty around them. My answer is no.

Q: You keep referring to a "resource community." What is that?

A: Everybody who's not on the street. I mean people that have a place to live, that are not hungry and their family is in some state of connectedness.

Q: Is Los Angeles the kind of place where you can awaken the resource community?

A: It's not a homogeneous community. It's very diffuse, diverse, spread out, fickle all the things that are normally said about Los Angeles. No, it's not an easy community to rally. I think that many people would be helpful if they felt that they were giving to a reputable group and there were legitimate outcomes affecting people's lives. I just think the more I can communicate what we're doing the more likely I'll find those who see they can make a difference.

Q: What will you be doing to get the word out?

A: Over time you will see URM's voice or presence more visible, I hope. I want to communicate with the business community and philanthropic community.

Q: What are some concrete examples of what you're planning to do?

A: Our next focus will be to build a family life center in the $10 million to $15 million range. We will purchase a piece of property and build a facility that will house about 300 individuals, maybe 60 families.

I also want to strengthen our partnerships with companies, with corporations, businesses. We need certified employment opportunities for our graduates and not just security jobs and maintenance jobs.

Q: How do you do that?

A: We do that by building relationships with the operating officer, the human resource directors of companies and helping to sensitize them and advise them of the types of people and level of education and skill sets that are coming out of this place and trying to match them.

Q: Your predecessor, Michael Teague, was a revered and accomplished leader when he died last year at 41. Do you feel any added burden to live up to his standard?

A: Michael was a very passionate man. If I were trying to live up to that reputation and history I suppose I'd feel some pressure. But I bring a different approach and different skill set and I feel confident and comfortable in my ability to do the job.

Q: How do you reconcile your own lifestyle with that of the people you're dealing with every day?

A: We all have gifts and talents and we need to approach the opportunity to serve this world from whatever background we come from. We don't need to become like them to help them.

Q: Do you always give a quarter when you encounter a panhandler?

A: I almost never do. I don't think that's the best use of the resources I can distribute. I take a little more time, when I have it, and see if I can connect them with a resource or a program or give them a phone number that will help them even more than my dollar.

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