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ForKids Helping Homeless Families in Coastal Virginia

This article was taken from Coastal Virginia Magazine and was written by Tom Robotham.

Shortly after Thaler McCormick went to work at ForKids—an organization that provides a variety of support services for homeless individuals and families—she sat down to interview one of her first clients, a woman named Carla.* (*Some of the names in this story have been changed to protect identities.)

“I asked her what her goals were,” McCormick recalls. “I remember her taking a few moments to think about it. Then she said, ‘I just want to be happy. I want to laugh.’ I was deeply touched—and I wanted to help Carla be able to laugh again.”

Thaler McCormick

That was 23 years ago. A few years later McCormick took over as executive director, and since then, she and her staff have helped thousands of people like Carla. Now, thanks to a successful capital campaign and enthusiastic support from the community of South Norfolk in Chesapeake, the organization is looking forward to a new chapter in its history, with plans underway to build an expansive new headquarters that will house a shelter, dining hall, education center and offices.

Meanwhile, at its current headquarters on Colley Avenue in Norfolk, the work goes on.

A crucial part of that work is the management of the Regional Housing Crisis Hotline, which serves as a gateway not only to ForKids but also to dozens of other charitable organizations in 14 cities throughout the region. Last year, case managers manning the phones fielded more than 45,000 calls. When I stopped by for a visit at 10 a.m. on the morning after Memorial Day, 75 people had already called seeking help.

Given the extent of homelessness in the United States, these numbers are not surprising. On a single night in 2018, according to an annual survey conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than half a million people were experiencing homelessness—552,830, to be exact. Approximately 6,000 of those individuals were in Virginia.

That number, however, does not reflect the full extent of the problem. For one thing, it doesn’t count the people who are living temporarily with family members or friends but are homeless for all intents and purposes. Moreover, it doesn’t count the people who are living right on the edge—one setback away from homelessness.

“That’s what I think many people don’t understand,” McCormick says. “How much the working poor are living right on the margin. It’s very easy to slide back out of housing again.”

Seconds after I sat down with a case manager, one such individual called from Newport News—a 40-year-old Army veteran who lost his job on May 12 and was seeking financial assistance to tide him over.

“I’m looking for work,” he said, “but I don’t think I’ll have anything before my June rent comes due.”The case manager referred him to several organizations that he could contact for potential help.

From there, the calls grew more urgent. A minute later, another veteran named Arthur* called from the Crisis Stabilization Center in Hampton, an in-patient psychiatric facility designed to help individuals in extreme emotional distress. Arthur had been living on the streets in Virginia Beach for two weeks prior to checking himself into the program, after losing his job and getting evicted from his apartment.

“Is there anyone you can stay with after you leave the crisis center?” the case manager asked.

“Maybe my mom,” he said, “but only for like a day or two.”

After asking a few more questions, the case manager gave him the number of the Peninsula Rescue Mission, which serves veterans, among others.

The next call was from a 45-year-old woman named Lana* who told the case manager that she had secured a Section 8 housing voucher and had found an apartment but lacked the money for a security deposit. (The term “Section 8” refers to the section of the Housing Act of 1937, which authorizes rental assistance for low-income families.) She was currently living in another apartment, but the lease was due to expire on May 31, without an opportunity for renewal.

“I have two children that have disabilities, and I have a disability also,” Lana told the case manager.

Alas, after searching the hotline database, the case manager came up empty.

“It looks like right now we don’t have any resources for deposit assistance,” she said. I’d recommend contacting local churches.”

“I did that last week,” Lana said. “I did all my research, and I’ve contacted everybody I can think of. Where are we going to stay? There’s nowhere to go,” she added, her voice beginning to shake.

The case manager gently told Lana there wasn’t anything more she could do at this point but that she should call back on the 31st if she needed assistance finding temporary shelter.  

Lana’s call underscored a harsh reality: Although ForKids and many other organizations work tirelessly to help people in need, there simply aren’t enough resources to help everyone. Compounding the problem is that eligibility for support services varies widely from city to city and person to person, depending on individual circumstances.

“The problem is enormously complex,” McCormick says. “Gaining eligibility for services is like putting a camel through the eye of a needle.”

The roots of the problem are equally complex. One of the main causes is the lack of affordable housing, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “The nation is currently facing one of the most severe affordable housing crises in history,” states the organization’s website. McCormick agrees—and she notes that the children of homeless families are the most vulnerable.

“We as a nation have not addressed the need for a housing stock that matches our workforce,” she says. “Housing is as much a part of our infrastructure as our roads are. That fundamentally impacts the overall wellbeing of our nation. If we don’t house our nation’s children safely, we have lost this resource,” she adds, noting that the traumatic instability that homeless children experience threatens both their physical and mental health. Their struggles, in turn, affect other children in the classroom, not to mention society in the long-term if they don’t gain the skills necessary to live productive and independent lives.

“We need to look at this not only as a matter of compassion but through a deeply practical lens. It’s as much a national security issue as having a strong military is.”

The nation’s mental health crisis is another contributing factor—along with a problem that’s often associated with it: domestic violence.

Tasha Wagner’s story is a case in point.