RICHMOND -- After years of financial turmoil left the agency struggling under mounting debt and dwindling resources, Neighborhood House of North Richmond has new leaders who say the historic social service institution is on the mend.

"I am optimistic that Neighborhood House will have a fresh start at the beginning of 2014," said President and CEO Lloyd Madden. "This institution will regain its prominence in the delivery of services to people in the greatest need."

Created in 1954, Neighborhood House spent decades building a reputation as one of the community's most trusted social service providers for children, people with substance abuse problems and the formerly incarcerated.

Barbara Becnel
Barbara Becnel (Robert Rogers/Staff)

But the economic downturn and a series of ambitious projects and real estate deals -- including a move from North Richmond to a sprawling new facility on 23rd Street -- left the organization teetering by 2012, when Madden says the board opted to lay off former CEO and President Barbara Becnel.

As recently as 2009, the annual budget was about $2 million. Today, the budget is down to $1 million, and the staff is just 35 people, Madden said. Neighborhood House is also faced with about $60,000 in unpaid utility and other bills and more than $3 million in real estate debt, Madden said.

Madden declined to lay blame on Becnel, a celebrated author and social activist who rose to prominence as a co-author for many of Stanley "Tookie" Williams' books, which the Crips gang founder wrote in San Quentin State Prison. Williams was executed in 2005.

"Neighborhood House was hurt by a combination of government and private funding losses, and the economy was a factor," Madden said. "As for the other problems, I can't say because I wasn't there."

In early 2012, a letter signed by community members and delivered by Bobby Bowens, a former Black Panther and community activist who died later that year, expressed concern with Becnel's leadership and the organization's direction.

Becnel blamed the problems on "disastrous economic circumstances" and said she retired.

"I am 63 years old, and I had been there for 15 years," she said. "It was time to pass the torch and to step aside for new and fresh leadership. It's time to do other things in my life."

Madden and Neighborhood House's new volunteer board of directors on Thursday hosted a silent auction to raise money and assure community members that Neighborhood House was set for better days.

During remarks to more than 60 people, Madden said Neighborhood House is saddled with unpaid bills, struggles to make payroll each month and needs to restore funding streams. Most of the money that comes into Neighborhood House is from Contra Costa County, Madden said.

"The financial condition of the organization is very tenuous," Madden told the crowd. "We need your help."

Madden, a former NAACP official who led Neighborhood House from 1981-86, said he and the board members are serving without compensation.

Whether Neighborhood House can increase its budget and capacity in the coming years depends in part on dispelling rumors that the nonprofit is in decline, said board member Francie Koehler.

"We need a fresh start," Koehler said.

how to help
To inquire about programs at Neighborhood House in North Richmond or to donate or volunteer, call 510-229-5000 or go to nhnr.org.