Otis Zanders’ work wasn’t easy to begin with. As chief executive of Ujamaa Place, he oversees a sweeping social-service program in St. Paul for young black men that bridges jobs, school and life skills.

Nine out of 10 of those who go through the intense four- to 24-month program are chronically homeless; 22% have lived in foster care; 23% have a disability.

But the coronavirus pandemic has been a setback for Ujamaa Place, which aims to guide the men, generally 18 to 30 years old, out of repeated cycles of failure.

It amplified the men’s health and economic risks and cut at what makes the Ujamaa program transformative.

Hugs, communal meals, support groups and one-on-one meetings to learn how to be better fathers, husbands or employees — social distancing ended all of that.

About 300 men are currently enrolled in the program at Ujamaa, a Swahili word that means “cooperative economics” and “brotherhood” or “extended family.”

About 2,000 men have participated since 2010. Of those, 4% have reoffended and been returned to prison, far below the national recidivism rate of 71%. Excerpts from an interview:

Q: How has the pandemic affected your efforts?

A: It put the brakes on our operation. We had to go from transformation mode to a stabilization mode.

We provide 37 services under the main pillars of education, housing, employment and wellness. It’s not a cookie-cutter program. When a person comes here, we do an individual assessment and design a treatment plan around his needs.

It’s all based on our central framework of the theory of transformation.

Historically we have been open 16 hours a day. We found ourselves only being able to serve people who were in our housing program.

And that’s a small percentage — about 60 guys — that we could make sure were fed twice a day, seven days a week.

We made sure they had proper hygiene, sanitizer and disinfectant and that we knew they were able to remain on their journey.


Q: What about those not in your housing?

A: So much of our program is about having a safe community. We provide a lot of needs, such as meals, bus tokens, a computer lab. We also provide their refuge.

We’re tying to overcome marginalization and historical trauma. We need them to be able to trust us and trust themselves — that’s relationship building.

It becomes more than just a program. We had a family environment that we had to close down. That’s what the pandemic took away.


Q: What adjustments have you made?

A: We had to resort to remote training, remote communication, remote confidence building, and remote love and support.

We had personal as well as group conversations on Zoom and conference calls all day long and into the evenings.

We purchased laptops so our men could stay on track with their plan. We had to convert our hands-on education and employment training to virtual programming.

Most all of our men had behavioral health issues prior to the pandemic, and those issues will be greatly exacerbated.

We expect to be $500,000 to $600,000 over budget because of program changes.


Q: What’s next?

A: We’re slowly and methodically opening up our programs with many cleaning precautions to ensure that we can keep our men, our staff and our community healthy.

But we have a backlog of potential Ujamaa men who have had to wait for orientation sessions.

Prior to COVID-19 smaller nonprofits used our space for their evening programs and we hope to get them back soon.