Friends & Neighbors | Housing Families First

Friends & Neighbors

How do you do homework when you don’t have a home?

Keeping up with schoolwork is hard enough for kids who have a stable home and enough to eat. For children on the edge of homelessness, it’s a Herculean task.

In Richmond, 38 percent of children live below the poverty line. Many of them are homeless, living in cars, hotels, shelters or with a relative.

“Going to school is a full-time job and it’s hard to take your job seriously when you’re moving around a lot or when you don’t have enough to eat.”

Helping them get to school and stay in school is a problem that impacts the entire community.

rulers hffAccording to the Institute for Children and Poverty, homeless children are nine times more likely to repeat a grade, four times more likely to drop out of school and three times more likely to be placed in special education programs.

“Going to school is a full-time job and it’s hard to take your job seriously when you’re moving around a lot or when you don’t have enough to eat,” explained Beth Vann-Turnbull, executive director at Housing Families First. “Plus the stress on their parents filters down onto the children.”

The stress from those children also filters out into the classroom, impacting other students, teachers and families.

Unstable housing

In the Richmond metro area, about 50-60 children and more than 600 adults are homeless on any given night.

But over the course of the year, 3,000 people, many of them children, spend time in one of the city’s homeless shelters.

The disparity in numbers is because homelessness is often a temporary situation, Vann-Turnbull explained. “Unstable housing” is a more exact term for many situations. A family may move in with relatives for a month, then stay in a hotel for a week, move in with friends for a couple weeks, move back to a hotel for a few days, spend a month in a homeless shelter and then end up getting more permanent housing.

“Statistics show that the majority of families aren’t literally homeless – in the streets, a car, or a shelter – for very long,” Vann-Turnbull said.

That’s the good news.

Community impacts

The bad news is that the impact of those homeless months ripples out into the community.

“Not everyone thinks that homelessness affects them if they’re not homeless, but we have students in schools all over the area,” Vann-Turnbull said. “We have them in the city, in the West End, in all of the counties.”

When a child is having academic or behavioral problems in school, it impacts the whole class, she said.

“It’s hard on the child, it’s hard on their classmates, it’s hard on the teachers,” she said. “If there’s a homeless child in your class, you are affected by homelessness whether you know it or not.”

“It’s hard on the child, it’s hard on their classmates, it’s hard on the teachers,” she said. “If there’s a homeless child in your class, you are affected by homelessness whether you know it or not.”

Getting there

And homeless children could be in any school.

The McKinney-Vento Act requires schools to provide transportation and support to homeless students to allow them to stay in their schools even if they aren’t living within the school boundaries anymore.

So if a family loses their home and has to move across town to stay with relatives, or in a hotel or a shelter, the children don’t have to change schools. Their school also has to help them with transportation to and from classes each day.school supplies hff

Generally, Vann-Turnbull said, the school provides gas cards or bus fare so the parents can drive the children to school or put them on a public bus.

Getting the kids to school in the first place is vital, Vann-Turnbull said, but even with assistance, it’s hard. Truancy is a problem for homeless families because it’s difficult to get children across town, even with financial help.

Homeless children are also more likely to miss school because they’re sick.

“Research has found nationally that children in homelessness are sick four times more often than their housed peers at the same income level,” Vann-Turnbull said.

Once they get to school, they need school supplies, which the school systems and Housing Families First help to provide. They also may need academic help and the Henrico County Public School Division provides a tutor who works with all of the Housing Families First students, not only the ones enrolled in Henrico schools.

Breaking the cycle

Hilliard House, the Housing Families First shelter, has 10-20 students at any given time.

“We have children from all over the region,” Vann-Turnbull said. “We have children who have never been homeless before, we have children who have been homeless before, we have high school students who are homeless with babies of their own and we try to help them stay in their own schools and graduate.”

The graduation rates are lower for homeless students and that’s a long-term problem for the poverty rate because graduating from high school is a major factor in future income. Keeping homeless kids in school until they earn their diplomas is the first step to ensuring that their own children don’t grow up in poverty and homelessness.

“Education is the number one factor,” Vann-Turnbull said. “It’s the most important thing we can do for our children.”

Want to help students experiencing homelessness? Donate $25 to fill a backpack with new school supplies or other essentials like shoes, graphing calculators, and headphones.  

Summer is Here and that’s a Problem

It’s almost cliché that parents dread summer break as much as kids look forward to it. For some parents though, the summer isn’t just a hassle – it’s a catastrophe.

For parents who are just getting by during the school year, summer means skyrocketing childcare costs – the difference between barely making ends meet and not making ends meet at all.

Mioshe’ Davis is a case manager at Housing Families First, where homeless families can get temporary shelter and support for a month or so while they regroup. The problem, she said, is ubiquitous among poor families – the parents need jobs but the children can’t just stay home alone. During the school year, children have a place to go for at least most of the day but once summer starts, the cost of childcare can be almost as much as a parent’s wages.

“There is no free daycare,” she said. “Daycare takes a huge part of their funds, even with outside help.”

Housing Families First is a 30-day shelter but, when needed, some families may stay for 45 days. Housing Families First helps them sign up for services and find jobs and then helps them move into their own permanent housing.

“We encourage them to get on the Department of Social Services daycare wait list as soon as they get here,” Davis said. “While they’re waiting, we have a funds available from a private grant so we can help them for two or three weeks.”

The Social Services daycare list is for parents with jobs only. A qualified parent can submit proof of employment and get daycare subsidized. But it only works for specific, approved daycare providers. Social Services pays their share directly to the daycare provider and the parent pays the rest.

“Families run into issues because they’ve still got to pay rent.”

“Social Services alleviates some of the financial burden,” Davis said. “When Mom or Dad gets a job, they bring in their hiring letter. But they have to take their kids to one of the approved daycare sites – there are a few of them in Richmond.”

Getting the kids to one of the approved sites is already an issue for the parents who don’t have cars. Being put on a wait list until a spot opens up is another problem. And then there’s the rest of the cost.

“One of our mothers recently got into a spot and Social Services paid most of the cost,” Davis said. “Her portion was only $70 a week.”

Seventy dollars a week is comparatively cheap for childcare that normally costs $150 a week for a baby or $125 a week for a toddler. And that doesn’t count the transportation cost of getting them there.

“None of the agencies anywhere has enough money to offer free childcare and childcare is the biggest obstacle our families have to getting and keeping jobs.”

A single parent who makes minimum wage earns $290 in a 40-hour workweek. Without subsidies, one child’s daycare can easily take up half. For a parent with more than one child, the money is gone before it comes in. And working more hours just adds to the childcare costs.

“Families run into issues because they’ve still got to pay rent,” Davis said. “They’ve still got to buy food and gas and electricity. They need to pay for things other than just daycare.”
One single mother in the Housing Families First program has been unable to keep a job because she hasn’t been able to keep up with daycare costs and scheduling.

“That’s just something that our families face on a daily basis,” Davis added. “They all have the same issue with it.”

While parents might be tempted to try leaving older children home alone while they work, that’s not allowed at Housing Families First. Parents have to be with their children at all times, unless they submit letters from other program families stating that they’ve worked out babysitting arrangements.

“That’s something some of them do,” Davis said. “We’ve got five families right now, all single mothers. Some of them have arrangements worked out to look after each other’s children while they’re working.”

And the fortunate ones have more than one adult in the family who can help. Two parents can sometimes juggle their work schedules to take care of children. Grandparents, aunts and uncles also sometimes step in to help with childcare.

“No one has enough money to offer it for free and many families never make enough money to afford it easily, even when it’s reduced.”

“But it’s always hard,” Davis said. “None of the agencies anywhere has enough money to offer free childcare and childcare is the biggest obstacle our families have to getting and keeping jobs.”

Private grants do help though. Housing Families First uses its grants to subsidize childcare, just as Social Services does, until a parent gets off the Social Services waitlist and into a daycare spot. Davis is also working with a local church preschool to offer subsidized daycare for her families.

“But childcare is never free,” she said. “No one has enough money to offer it for free and many families never make enough money to afford it easily, even when it’s reduced.”

A bike, a bus and the will to keep going

It’s not easy to rise when you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, but with a helping hand, it can be done.

Just ask Joe and Sherry (not their real names).

Married with two sons and a third on the way, they’re finally out of the homeless shelter and into their new apartment. But it’s taken some doing: two shelters, a 300-mile move, a donated bicycle and a 2 a.m. daily wake-up call.

“We came down from New York City on the bus.”

“We came down from New York City on the bus,” Joe said. “We’d spent 18 months in a shelter in New York but it was $1,800 a month for a studio apartment and the shelter wasn’t helping us get one.”

If you can make it there …
Joe said they had ended up in a New York City shelter in the first place just because rent was so high. They’d each been living with their parents, working, but not making enough to move out. They got married and tried to make a go of it, but the sky-high price of Big Apple rent was beyond their means.

They didn’t want to be married and living in their parents’ houses, he said, so they thought they’d try a shelter temporarily in the hopes of getting assistance finding an affordable place of their own. But the months dragged on, a son was born, time passed, Sherry got pregnant again, more time passed and they were still living in the shelter with no end in sight.

Rent in New York was just more than they could afford.

So they packed up, boarded a bus, and moved south to Richmond, where they had a few local connections and a lot of hope that they could afford rent on a place of their own in RVA.
Stranded

They arrived in Richmond six months ago and a few months later, they moved into Hilliard House, the interim shelter at Housing Families First.

And that’s when they realized they’ve got a different problem in Richmond.

“We don’t have licenses or permits,” Joe said. “We can’t drive.”

Like many New Yorkers, Joe and Sherry had never needed a car so they’d never learned to drive. Once in Richmond, however, they discovered that while rent is comparably cheap, it’s hard to make it without a car. Despite having a bus line, the Richmond area just isn’t designed for public transit or for easy walking – especially if you’ve got small children.

“If you don’t have any transportation, you can’t do anything.”

“If you don’t have any transportation, you can’t do anything,” Joe said. “There’s so many things we want to do with the kids but without transportation, you’re stuck.”
They do manage to get to work though. It’s just not easy.

A hard commute
Housing Families First gave Joe a used bicycle from their storage shed and he used it to commute 10 miles to work every day, rain or shine, snow or sleet.

“I had to get up at 2 a.m. because I have to be at work at 4,” Joe said.
He handles inventory for a local company and while the hours are long and the bike commute makes it even longer, it’s a good job.

Sherry works 25 hours a week at Kmart, which is only a 15-minute walk from the Hilliard House.
But she’s pregnant and the couple already has a 3-year-old, a 6-month-old and no help with childcare.

“I had to get up at 2 a.m. because I have to be at work at 4.”

“We take turns with the kids,” Joe said. “I work 40 hours but I can’t leave until my jobs are finished and then after I’m finished, I have to wait until the other guys are finished. I wake up at 2 in the morning and I get there at 4 a.m. and I usually don’t get home until 7:45 at night.”

When Joe isn’t on the road or working himself, he keeps the children so Sherry can work.
“It’s just hard,” he said.

But it’s starting to pay off.

Upwardly mobile
After two months at Hilliard House, the couple were approved for an apartment of their own and moved in at the end of May.

“It’s in Highland Park,” Joe said. “It’s closer to my job – only 22 minutes on the bike – but it’s further from hers. She still has to walk but we’re trying to save up enough for a scooter.”

A scooter can be operated without a driver’s license and it’s considerably cheaper than a car, so it’s a good option for them, Joe said.

Between the two of them, they’ll make enough money to pay the rent on their apartment and will hopefully be able to save enough to buy a scooter at some point, Joe said.

“It’s a struggle every day but you appreciate what you’ve got.”

“We may need a little bit of help but we’re trying to pick up more hours at work,” he said.
But by the time their third child is born in the fall, Joe and Sherry are expecting to be on their feet.

“You learn not to take anything for granted,” Joe said. “It’s a struggle every day but you appreciate what you’ve got.”

Life at a homeless shelter when you’re 6

Taliah has a whole speech prepared to give to the kids who live in the homeless shelter she’s going to run one day. “I want to talk to them about pushing through it—how if they put their minds on what they can do, they can make it there.”

She ought to know. As a young child, Taliah spent several years going from one shelter to another alongside her mother, who lost her home for a number of reasons. The six-year-old had been living with her father when one day she was told she was going to the zoo—then found herself in a shelter with her mom, who was struggling to overcome a drug addiction.

“I want to talk to them about pushing through it—how if they put their minds on what they can do, they can make it there.”

“My dad understood that my mom needed me, and that I needed her,” says Taliah, who at first wasn’t happy with the arrangement. “But I knew that my mom needed me there to keep her strong, so I stayed.” The two spent time in three different shelters before they landed at Hilliard House, the interim shelter at Housing Families First, and Taliah immediately felt the difference as soon as they arrived.

Taliah

Taliah Connor

A home, not a shelter

With more kids her age, more devoted attention from the staff, and an array of activities to help the children stay engaged and active, she felt more like she was part of a community. Today, at 19, she credits her time at Hilliard House with shaping who she is today: a young woman with a dream and the drive to see it through.

“I felt like I was going home,” says Taliah about her time at Housing Families First. “Not like I was going to a shelter.”

Taliah attends Old Dominion University these days, and speaks with the confidence of a person with a plan. She’s double-majoring in women’s studies and business, a course she felt would lay the best groundwork for her life’s ambition, run a shelter for women and their children. To her, those are a shelter’s most vulnerable demographic, and she’s impatient to give back, starting by volunteering this summer at Housing Families First and learning all she can.

As a child, living in a shelter was a lot to go through, difficult to explain to your friends, and hard for a young mind to wrap itself around. She remembers feeling angry at her mother, feeling helpless, and feeling like this was the path her life would inevitably follow. But the staff  helped alter her train of thought. They asked her how she was doing at school, took an interest in keeping her mind active, and encouraged her to do activities with other children. Soon, her friends even felt a little envious that she got to stay within such a tight-knit community.

“I felt like I was going home,” says Taliah about her time at Housing Families First. “Not like I was going to a shelter.”

Strength, hope, and the wisdom of experience

She felt strong with the staff behind her, and she won’t forget the time they took to make sure her mom had all the help she needed to find a job and a home. Even once they were settled in their new apartment, Taliah remembers one individual, “Miss Peggy,” who made it her personal mission to follow up with visits and phone calls.

As she got older and started to set her sights on college, Taliah turned to Miss Peggy to help her figure out the application process. Looking back, she feels for her parents’ helplessness when faced with such a situation. Without their own education, they just didn’t have the experience to help Taliah move forward, although they weren’t lacking in emotional support. Taliah wants to be someone else’s Miss Peggy—preferably a Miss Peggy to a lot of people, starting with her own brother. “Over the years, I watched my family struggle because they didn’t have an education,” she remarks. “They couldn’t sit down with me to help with my homework or my applications, and I want my little brother to have someone tell him how to do this kind of thing. If I don’t do it, no one will.”

“They couldn’t sit down with me to help with my homework or my applications, and I want my little brother to have someone tell him how to do this kind of thing. If I don’t do it, no one will.”

Taliah remains very close to her father, stepmother, and her mother, who now lives in New York City. She never quite realized how guilty her father felt until the day she thanked him for giving her the experience of living in shelters with her mother. He was brought to tears, and that’s when it dawned on her that he’d never been comfortable with his own decision. But Taliah knew that it had made her stronger. “I used my mom’s experience to see where I didn’t want to be,” Taliah says. “I used it as a push to get better. But I stuck by my mother’s side, and that’s what I want to tell children like me.”

“People think about homeless people being on the street,” she explains. “They don’t know that there are people living in shelters. It doesn’t mean you’re dirty, you’re dumb, or you’re a drug addict.”

At her university, Taliah has met a lot of first-generation college students, but she’s the only one she knows who has lived in a homeless shelter. This doesn’t discourage her—she’s happy to talk about it to anyone who asks. “People think about homeless people being on the street,” she explains. “They don’t know that there are people living in shelters. It doesn’t mean you’re dirty, you’re dumb, or you’re a drug addict. Homelessness can mean that you were in the wrong place at a bad time, and now you’re trying to get back on your feet.”

How One Night Makes All the Difference

Housing Families First made history last week in more ways than one. Our annual gala, this year themed “A Night at the Theatre: A Return to the Jazz Age” saw our donors decked out in flapper dresses and pinstripe suits. But, it wasn’t just the 1920s that we were honoring. As the donations came in, we can now list 2017 as a historic year for our organization—we surpassed our fundraising goal by $7,500, making this our most successful fundraising event to date.

"Cab Calloway" (portrayed by Thomas Nowlin) performing "The Hi Di Ho Man" at the Hippodrome.

“Cab Calloway” (portrayed by Thomas Nowlin) performing “Minnie the Moocher” at The Hippodrome.

This annual event is vitally important to Housing Families First, who uses the proceeds to fund programs that provide meals and maintenance in the shelter, weekly bus passes, short-term financial subsidies for families in our rapid re-housing program, and more. Of the $55,000 that we raised, $35,000 will go straight to the individuals we serve, making us one of the most efficiently run programs of our kind.

It was so clear to us after our gala that our donors truly care about Richmond families experiencing homelessness. And they turned out in force to make sure that we could continue our mission. Thanks to them, we’ve been able to move more than 250 families out of homelessness and into permanent housing over the last five years. Those are numbers we can all be proud of, together.

And now, we’re poised to do so much more.

Executive Director Beth Vann-Turnbull weighed in on what this year’s Night at the Theatre meant for the organization and for the greater community.

This is your 3rd annual signature event. How did you come up with the theme? What have you learned along the way?

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“A Night at the…” was conceptualized three years ago by a creative group of volunteers, staff, board members, and catering executives. It’s a great theme because it allows us to keep a consistent event while giving us the flexibility to try new things each year. The first annual event was A Night at the Ski Lodge, and the last two galas have been A Night at the Theatre. All of them have been so much fun. We have a dedicated committee of volunteers that drives the success of each year’s event, and we’re
always looking for new members. The community is coming to know that “A Night at the…” is Housing Families First’s signature event, but they don’t know exactly what fun twist may be in store next year. Will it be more Mad Men or disco? Stay tuned to find out!

How many families will the funding support? 

About 200 children and adults will make our emergency shelter their temporary home this year, at a cost of less than $35 per person, per day. More than 250 people (approximately 80 families)—some coming from our emergency shelter and some from other shelters—will move into a safe, permanent home through our Building Neighbors program. The average amount of financial assistance we provide to move a family out of homelessness and connect them with the tools they need to achieve long-term stability is just $4,473. Mostly importantly, 85 percent of the families we house will not return to homelessness more than a year after our assistance ends.

Our signature event provides us with the all-important unrestricted funds necessary to do what truly needs to be done to get families into safe, permanent housing, regardless of the restrictions you come across when you’re working with grants.

What is your annual budget?

Our FY 2017 annual budget is right at $1 million, and the money goes a long way in helping families get off the street and into stable homes. When compared to the expense of other homeless interventions and crisis services, Housing Families First’s programs are truly a cost-effective way to address family homelessness.

DANC0729What specifically does the funding help support?

Our signature event provides us with the all-important unrestricted funds necessary to do what truly needs to be done to get families into safe, permanent housing, regardless of the restrictions you come across when you’re working with grants. We’re truly grateful for the diverse sources of public and private grant funding that we receive. But, by their very nature, many grants don’t cover a variety of expenses—ranging from short-term childcare subsidies so parents can begin work, to operational staffing, to shelter insurance, to bus tickets for clients. These items, while not necessarily funded through grant programs, are critical to operating successful, supportive housing programs.

Without the unrestricted funds provided by our signature event, we would end up with one horrible cake or no cake at all.

A nonprofit blog post once likened piecing together grant funding with a group baking a cake – a cake in which one person would purchase all the eggs but none of the flour or butter, another would purchase half the butter and a quarter of the flour and some oil, another would provide lots of chocolate, and no one wanted to cover the cost of the baker’s time. Without the unrestricted funds provided by our signature event, we would end up with one horrible cake or no cake at all. In other words, we couldn’t operate our highly effective housing programs without the flexible funding our donors provide from events like this one.

What kinds of things do families always need that might surprise families who don’t struggle with homelessness?

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They’re basic items, but they may not be obvious. Families need weekly and round-trip bus tickets (hint: you can buy them at some Walgreen’s locations); $10 gas cards; new shower curtains and rings; cleaning supplies; small buckets and trash cans; new pillows; towels, sheets, pots and pans. And, with up to 20 children living in our emergency shelter, we can’t get enough paper towels, toilet paper, napkins, and large-size diapers. Donations of these items enable us to successfully help families find stability with a very limited budget.

Many grants don’t cover a variety of expenses—ranging from short-term childcare subsidies so parent can begin work, to operational staffing, to shelter insurance, to bus tickets for clients. These items, while not necessarily funded through grant programs, are critical to operating successful, supportive housing programs.

You used to be Hilliard House. Why the name change?

We changed the name of our organization from Hilliard House to Housing Families First to reflect our
growth and the implementation of our new “Housing First” focus in 2012. Our organization still offers safe, supportive shelter for families. But now, we do much more. Quickly stabilizing families in permanent housing is our top priority. The addition of our Building Neighbors rapid re-housing program enables us to do just that. Since moving to the Housing First approach, Housing Families First serves nearly eight times as many families annually than before. That’s a huge jump.

You’ve been with Housing Families First for a few years. What do you think people don’t know about the organization?

The success of our organization is built on the success of the families we serve. I think that many people would be surprised at how much our families are able to achieve with low wages and minimal assistance, and how much our organization is able to do with our small staff and modest budget. Despite the fact that support services for very low-income families—a significant percentage of whom are employed—can be fragmented, the majority are able to leave homelessness in a really quick turnaround of 30 days, with targeted help from the Housing Families First team and our community partners. That’s the Housing First approach in action, and it works!

Despite the fact that support services for very low-income families—a significant percentage of whom are employed—can be fragmented, the majority are able to leave homelessness in a really quick turnaround of 30 days.

I also think that many people would be surprised by how closely we partner with other agencies to address homelessness across the region. Funding and services for people experiencing homelessness are coordinated on behalf of our region by Homeward (where I am proud to serve on the Board of Directors), and most of the homeless services agencies meet together at least monthly to prioritize services for those in need of housing in Richmond.

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What is your biggest barrier to getting the funding you need to support your programs?

Besides the barrier of funding restrictions mentioned earlier, one of the biggest barriers to securing funding is our limited name recognition in the broad community. I’ve heard several people say that we are a great organization but are somewhat of a “well-kept secret.” We deliver amazing results in a very cost-effective manner, and we are proud of what we do. Our philosophy is that the more people who know about us, the more funding to support and expand programs will come our way. That’s why we are redoubling our efforts to get our name out into the community through events like this one, our website, the Friends & Neighbors blog, and social media. If you’re reading this, we bet you would be a good fit to be a Housing Families First supporter. And please, do share with your circle of friends. That’s how change happens.

What do you hope to accomplish this year?

Housing Families First has big goals this year, and while there are aggressive, we can absolutely achieve them with community support. We plan to increase the number of households we move into permanent housing by 20 percent in 2017, while increasing the percentage of households that raise their family income while in our programs. Additionally, now that we’ve surpassed 15 years in operations, we have some significant infrastructure and sustainability improvements to make. Our plan is to raise an additional $200,000 over last year’s revenues to meet these important infrastructure needs.

We plan to increase the number of households we move into permanent housing by 20 percent in 2017.

How can people help?

We can’t successfully carry out our mission without strong community support, and we want to be the most galvanizing organization in Richmond! If you’ve been looking for a way to give back to your community, we can’t think of a better way than this one. We urge you to visit our frequently updated website and sign up for our monthly Friends & Neighbors e-newsletter. Share the newsletter with a friend. Come take a tour. Sign up for your family or your community group to volunteer—just one time or on an ongoing basis. Organize a donation drive at your work, congregation, or in your neighborhood. Or, make a monetary gift— every single dollar matters here at Housing Families First—and encourage any friends you have who can do the same.

We’re a tight-knit group here at Housing Families First, and we would love to welcome you into our family.

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Survivor: How One Woman’s Dark Past Shines a Light for Others

Terra Jones was a sixth grader the first time she was homeless.

None of her new classmates knew about the abuse she endured from her father, and that when she and her mother left, they had no place to go.

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Terra Jones

“I was afraid of being separated from my mother if they knew that we were sleeping in the car,” Terra remembers. There were no supportive programs that she knew of back then. Her mother was able to obtain housing, although it was never permanent, and they would be homeless again. Frustrated, her mother began to drink and take drugs to cope. Eventually, she would begin to beat Terra.

I was afraid of being separated from my mother if they knew that we were sleeping in the car.

Terra responded by excelling in school, determined to graduate with high marks. While her home life continued to suffer, Terra still had hope.

“I thought and believed that if I became successful, that she would stop her behavior,” Terra recalls.

Terra told herself that things had to get better.

Someone to Count On
Though she didn’t reveal much about her home life with her friends, Terra sought out mentors. She volunteered at a library in high school where she befriended a librarian, whom Terra affectionately calls “Ms. Mary.”

I was determined to go to school and be successful.

Ms. Mary took an interest in Terra, and over time, they grew to know each other well.

She made sure Terra ate during the day, talked to her and invited her to spend time with her family. Ms. Mary held Terra accountable for her actions and provided guidance along the way. She was a role model who would eventually take Terra in after things took at turn for the worse at home.

“Ms. Mary had a college degree, volunteered in the community and was a very giving and humble person. Her example motivated me to strive for excellence in my personal and professional life.”

During this time, she learned that she could emancipate herself. The requirements at that time were that she had to be 16, work at least 20 hours a week and be able to pay rent, and have a place to live. She proved that she met the requirements, and rented a room from her classmate’s mom. By age 17, her senior year of high school, Terra became her own guardian.

“I was determined to go to school and be successful,” Terra recalls. Ms. Mary’s accomplishments encouraged her to strive for success.

Like the other seniors, she worked with school counselors to stay on deadlines for college and financial aid applications. She was accepted to Virginia Commonwealth University and applied for as many scholarships and awards as she could.

During the application process, she wrote about her story and what she had gone through as a child. Terra won enough scholarships from sharing her experience to almost pay for the first year of school.

God’s Promise to Every Boy and Girl

God’s Promise to Every Boy and Girl

In 1993, Terra donned her cap and gown and graduated with the rest of her class at C D Hylton High School. Her mother and Ms. Mary beamed with pride.

Homeless for the holidays

Terra lived in the dorms while she studied psychology at VCU. She wanted to be a counselor and help people. She even joined a sorority. But Terra’s college experience was different from that of most of her friends. While most looked forward to holiday breaks, none of her friends knew how Terra dreaded the times when the dorms would close.

A holiday for me meant homelessness again.

“A holiday for me meant homelessness again,” says Terra. During breaks she would stay with a family she met through her church.If she was able to save up enough money, she would stay in a motel. Eventually, she reconciled with her mother and felt safe enough to go to her home during the breaks.

When a Woman is Loved Right

She never expected to become a playwright, but when her church was looking for someone to write a play for children, she took it on with the same gusto she’d given to her studies.

She studied playwriting and went on to write several more on a variety of topics. As time went on, she wondered what it would be like to share her own journey. She soon discovered it was precisely what she needed to heal old wounds.

“It ended up helping me more than anyone else,” she says.

Terra wrote seven plays, but it’s “When a Woman is Loved Right” that changed things for her. The play is based on her life – including her tumultuous youth and her college life (where she met her husband) – told through the lens of hope.

“My future is not going to be my past,” she says of the play’s message. ““The goal was to motivate and encourage children just like me.”

Terra felt vulnerable the first time she watched her life story play out on stage. “But then, I started to see the results of so many women and teenagers seeing the story and feeling like they weren’t alone.”

The cast, from left to right: Terra as a child, adult Terra in wedding dress, Terra's mother and Ms.Mary.

The cast, from left to right: Terra as a child, adult Terra in wedding dress, Terra’s mother and Ms.Mary.

Sharing her story was therapeutic, she says. As an adult, “I was able to share it in a way that was healthy,” whereas she couldn’t see what would eventually be a blessing to her in all the madness as it was happening.

The play’s success led to speaking engagements,where children and adults reached out to her who had similar experiences. Terra eventually went on to publish a children’s book (“God’s Promise to Every Boy and Girl”) to encourage kids to have hope no matter their circumstances.

After years of keeping her past a secret, Terra’s story was public and lifting others up. It also empowered her to share this part of her life with her own children.

“[The play] became part of who I was, and it gave them something to be proud of.”
Sorority sisters, other friends from college and her community, and even high school friends, came to see the play. Terra said that a lot of them were taken aback because they didn’t know what she had been through.

“I wasn’t moping,” she says of herself as a teenager. “I didn’t show signs of depression or despair.” Her peers in school knew her as someone who had an active school life – Terra was in the student government association, played sports, and was in the choir.

Terra at the 2015 "A Night at the Theatre" fundraiser for Housing Families First.

Terra at the 2015 “A Night at the Theatre” fundraiser for Housing Families First.

“I stayed busy so I didn’t have to stay focused on the things that were broken in my personal life,” she explains.

I’ve always felt led to give back because I felt that so much was given to me.

Her friends expressed shock to hear her real story, but told her they were proud of her courage to tell it.

“I felt like it would be wrong for me to not share the story of how you can overcome,” she says.

A life of faith and purpose

Terra raised 4 children with the values Ms. Mary instilled in her so many years ago. “My life’s journey is a living testament of how even in the face of uncertainty that my hope and faith would lead me to an expected end with purpose and peace,” Terra said. “That is what I want my children always take with them.”

Terra has 22 years experience in the financial industry where she continues to seek opportunities to help others struggling with homelessness. She’s given several financial literacy workshops at Housing Families First and serves on the organization’s board.

“I’ve always felt led to give back because I felt that so much was given to me,” she says. “I am grateful to have a career that allows me to serve in the community and promote financial literacy.”

Taking your Lessons from Bumps in the Road

There are turning points in every life, and Alesha can trace everything back to these. Some, she knows now she could have controlled and some she couldn’t. But all of them were crucial moments that she’s found a way to learn from, no matter how difficult the lesson.

At 16, Alesha left her Chesterfield home, where she lived with her mother, stepfather, and younger brothers. She’d spent her childhood growing up too fast—suffering physical and sexual abuse, navigating addict parents, and taking care of her baby brothers. “It was a rough life,” she repeats quietly when she thinks back. “A rough life.”

God never puts anything on you that you can’t handle.

She was pregnant, scared, and determined to get out of a place she could no longer stand to be in. But with no one to talk to or trust, it was difficult to know where to go. Now at 27, Alesha can look back and see that it was the lack of a support system in her life that kept her drifting for so long. A decade of moving in and out of often dangerous living situations, more pregnancies, the struggle to feed her and her children, left her with a desperation to have her own place.

Trying to swim upstream

There was a moment when her life seemed to be changing course, although it wasn’t in the direction she’d hoped. Alesha was able to secure a place for herself and her children in Hillside Court, a public housing complex on Richmond’s South Side. It seemed like a godsend at first—more space, privacy, and a chance to get on her feet while she tried to find a job.

But those old vulnerabilities crept in, and with no one to help guide her, the young mother of four succumbed to a lifestyle of substance abuse. She found escape everywhere, waiting for her around every corner, and before she knew it she found herself resembling the kind of parent she had tried to hard to run from.

I wouldn’t wish having children being taken away on my own worst enemy.

When Child Protective Services (CPS) caught on, Alesha’s children were taken from her and put into safer homes for the time being. The depression that set in after this was crippling, but the sensation of hitting rock bottom did a surprising thing—it motivated her to start climbing.

There was a new baby on the way, and she knew that the first order of business was to make sure she distanced herself from Hillside Court. Alesha fled, leaving most of her things behind. “I knew that if I couldn’t find anywhere to go that CPS would take my newborn, and…no. That wasn’t happening.”

Increasingly, she’d been relying on her mental health counselor for guidance, clinging to the one person who seemed like she was on Alesha’s side. The counselor recommended Hilliard House, where Alesha started for the first time in her life to feel like she had stable ground underneath her. With a room of her own, childcare options, help with transportation and job searches, she felt herself being boosted to her next step: getting a steady job, which would lead to a place of her own.

Solid footing and a new perspective

Just a few months later, and the whole world has changed for Alesha and her cheerful, laid-back little baby.

The two live together in a two-bedroom apartment. It’s a quiet community, and her whole voice changes when she talks about it. She describes the floorplan with pride, pointing out that now that she has full kitchen, she’s going to learn how to cook.

Alesha’s growing skill with food is being cultivated at her new job, a center that provides daycare and recreation. She started at the welcome desk and then picked up some more hours in the kitchen, where she learned how to bake cookies and cakes. Soon, she was taking a lot of pride in the sweets she was helping to create for the children and families that came to the center.

Making other children happy has a lot to do with her next goal, giving her children her best self again.

“I wouldn’t wish having children being taken away on my own worst enemy,” Alesha says firmly. “But God never puts anything on you that you can’t handle. And maybe it was a good thing, maybe I needed to take this time to get myself together and find myself again, so that I can be the best mom that I can.”

She counts down the days until she’s eligible to bring her children back into her home, and she runs down the list of each child’s personalities. It’s only a couple of months away, and she can’t wait until they see their new apartment. “I want them to grow up and have the life that I never had. I want them to have strong lives and be the best they can be,” she affirms.

Her main objective for her kids is to make sure they have the support they need to always have a place they can call home. “I want to teach them to know that when you see someone homeless, that could be you. Whether you’re rich or poor, things can change in the blink of an eye. I don’t want that to happen to them.”

I want them to grow up and have the life that I never had.

Alesha’s a believer in people, now, and the importance of having others to ask for advice, to connect you to resources, and to just listen to you when you need someone to talk to. She wants to be that person for her kids, and she’s going to do whatever it takes to see that they have a mother, a home, and the stability she never did.

When they come to their own crossroads in their lives, Alesha plans to be there to help them all through.

A Mother and Son Put Homelessness in the Rearview

After her husband left, Tanya* struggled to pay the bills on her own. Eventually, she and her 12-year-old son moved in with her mother. She had a new job working with Medicaid, and her outspoken and outgoing son returned to a football camp out of state for the summer. While he was gone, Tanya and her mother had an argument and Tanya had no choice but to leave. She had nowhere to go, and found herself living out of her car. Her son was unaware of what his mom was going through.

Tanya shared what was happening with her cousin, who asked why she wasn’t staying in a shelter. She didn’t realize that was an option for someone in her situation. Her cousin gave her the number to Commonwealth Catholic Charities, which was within walking distance of her job. Shortly thereafter, she found herself going through the intake process for placement into a shelter, but there was no space available at the time.

A case manager from Housing Families First contacted her the next Monday, and by Tuesday, after spending two weeks in her car, Tanya was in the shelter.

“When you think of a shelter, you think it would be like the worst experience ever. I actually had a great time there,” Tanya says. It was nothing like she’d imagined or the grim place with cots shown on TV shows. It was the opposite. She had her own room, there were freshly made meals, and she soon met other people (and even reconnected with some she already knew from her neighborhood growing up). “It was very welcoming.”

When you think of a shelter, you think it would be like the worst experience ever. I actually had a great time there.

Originally, Tanya had been told that going from the shelter to her own residence would take up to two months; but it was only eight days before she was able to move into a townhouse in the same school district her son’s school was in. She had furniture and other items from her last home in storage, so she didn’t need assistance with furnishing the new place.

By the time her son was home from camp, Tanya was moving in. She couldn’t bring herself to tell him what had happened to her while he was away, but he was happy that he could return to the same school and liked the new place.

Four months in, and Tanya is approaching the date where she’ll be paying full rent by herself. At first, Housing Families First provided financial assistance, but now the bills are manageable for Tanya.

“I love my place,” she’s eager to say.

Tanya still hears from her case manager with Housing Families First every week—the weekly check-in helps everyone stay on the same page about what Tanya needs, most recently to let her know that she was eligible to get a basket of food for Thanksgiving. She’s grateful for the case manager for keeping in touch. Tanya considers herself someone who is motivated to accomplish the things she wants to do, but she is good at reaching out when she needs to. The case manager has been sending work opportunities on a daily basis and even set up an interview after Tanya mentioned she’s interested in a second job.

I love my place.

Recently, Tanya and her son drove by the shelter, and she used the experience to talk to him about where she had been that summer. He was surprised and asked to go inside and see what it was like, but Tanya decided to not to show him that day. Instead, she continues to focus on what’s next for her and her son.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the families we serve.

Join the Story: Introducing Friends & Neighbors

When tragedy strikes, most of us can rest assured that someone somewhere is baking a casserole. Friends gather to find out how they can intervene. Go Fund Me pages are launched. Flowers are sent. All to show the grieving that we care.

On a larger scale, in times of crisis, cities often band together in solidarity. We tell ourselves that we are at our best during these times, when we can depend on each other to get through a difficult period.

After all, that’s what friends and neighbors are for, isn’t it? We all benefit when we invest in each other.

But what happens if you’re alone? What if there are no friends or neighbors checking in to see how they can help? What if your options have run out and you and your children have nowhere to go?

You might not know it, but somewhere in your daily routine is a family who is experiencing homelessness. It might be the woman working overtime at the grocery check-out. It might be the student in your child’s class who is failing because he’s hungry.

The signs just aren’t always obvious as someone panhandling or sleeping on a park bench. The images that come to mind when we think about homelessness are often misleading. We think they are different from us somehow. And all too often we discount them because we don’t see them.

You’ve got more in common than you know.

Most of the adults referred to us are parents who, like you, are devoted to their children.

Contrary to popular belief, most are employed and work around the clock at low-paying jobs to support their families. But making ends meet is tough when 30% of your income is spent on rent, which is the case for almost half of all Richmond renters. Even if you could afford the rent, finding a landlord willing to rent to someone who has experienced homelessness is next to impossible.

As a result, hundreds of Richmond children find themselves sleeping at emergency shelters, or living out of cars, motels and other temporary spaces. They struggle in school and suffer from mental and physical health challenges. Many drop out before graduation, perpetuating the cycle and stigma of homelessness.

Richmonders just like you need their friends and neighbors to help them get through. But, it’s easy to turn away from what we cannot see. That’s why, starting this month, we will bring you stories spotlighting Richmond Friends & Neighbors impacted by homelessness. You’ll meet families who have experienced homelessness first-hand and members of the community who dedicate their nights and weekends to find permanent housing and the support families need to thrive.

We invite you to read their stories and share them so that others will learn more about family homelessness. Our friends and neighbors are counting on you. Will you join their story?

A Night at the Theatre Supports Housing Families First

A Night at the Theatre, a signature fundraiser held at the Altria Theater on February 25th, gave over 150 guests the chance to hang out with Hollywood icons and help Housing Families First move families out of homelessness. Many thanks to our sponsors for making the event a success!

NACE Richmond
Richmond Magazine
Virginia Community Development Corporation
Ipanema Café
General Cigar Company, Inc.
United Healthcare
BB&T
CSC Leasing Company
Data Illuminated, LLC
Kanady & Quinn, P.C.
Spotts Fain
ThompsonMcMullan P.C.
VHDA
HDAdvisors
Wawa Foundation
Virginia Community Capital
Comcast
Photoelectric
Minuteman Press of Ashland