PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A small group of community members, including a city councilor, stood on the sidewalk on Thomas P. Whitten Way on Thursday chanting: “Save John Hope.”
The group said they have been trying to get answers about the future of the John Hope Settlement House, a West End institution since 1939, that has been in financial disarray for years.
City Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris, who represents Ward 11, summarized the fundamental question at hand: “What’s gonna happen to John Hope?”
She said she has sent three letters to the nonprofit’s board requesting a meeting about the future of the community center, which she said has dwindled its services in recent years. The letters were not answered.
“We want the meeting because we don’t quite understand how John Hope is operating,” Harris said. “How do they engage the community as a whole, how do you serve the community? What are the financial problems that are constantly being mentioned to us? What’s the by-laws? Who’s on the board?”
The nonprofit, which according to its website was founded by “spirited African American leaders to serve their neighbors,” currently operates a day care that has a license on probationary status with DCYF. It also has an after school program.
But Harris and the other community members remember a time when the center had many more services, including a foster grandparent program, a food pantry, and a senior program.
“I’ve been a member of John Hope forever,” said Renee Warren, who said she used to work at John Hope. “I don’t like what’s going on.”
She recalled overnight camps, dances, ceramics and cooking classes when she went to John Hope as a child.
“For me, this was a home away from home when I was growing up,” Warren said.
A 2017 report conducted by the state Auditor General warned of dire financial straits at John Hope, saying finances there had “steadily deteriorated” and it was in danger of going into receivership if DCYF revoked its day care license.
The center’s most recent nonprofit filings indicate it’s spending more money than it’s taking in by thousands of dollars each year.
State lawmakers ended a $300,000 grant to the agency in 2016. Its “contributions and grants” subsequently dropped to just $12,000 that fiscal year, compared to $386,000 the previous year, according to the IRS filings.
Recently, John Hope almost leased some of its underutilized space to a charter school that would have brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the board dropped the plans amid backlash from community members who said the center should be providing services to people in need, not becoming a school.
“We have a lot of our young people who still live in this community who talk about how John Hope had an impact on their life. How John Hope kept them out of jail,” Harris said.
She said she would like to see a new board come in and provide the community with a new vision for the next 5 to 10 years.
“I’ve heard the pain in your voices about the lack of transparency here,” Harris said to the community members at the news conference. “I’ve been encouraged and empowered by the community.”
Providence Rep. Anastasia Williams, who used to lead the John Hope board is still a board member, referred comment on the situation to chair Jameela Dunston. Dunston could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.
John Hope’s website still lists Williams as the board president, and has not been updated with a list of current board members.
The website says of John Hope’s mission: “John Hope exists to provide leadership through comprehensive and dynamic human services, community outreach and advocacy for children, youth and families in Providence and beyond that will result in improving their lives.”