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"I feel like a human being."

Updated: Oct 20, 2022

A Virginian-Pilot article by Ryan Murphy.

It’s move-in day.

Daryl Lawson Lugo and her daughter didn’t have much to bring, just a couple of bags, plastic tubs of clothes and assorted belongings to the brick building on South Norfolk’s Poindexter Street.

For most, the dorm-style room wouldn’t look like much, with two beds and a set of bunk beds hugging the walls, a small dining table tucked into one corner and a kitchenette with a sink, microwave and minifridge. With no bathroom, Lawson Lugo will have to take 3-year-old Sade (pronounced shah-DAY) down the hall for a bath once they’ve settled.

But this little room has taken a massive weight off Lawson Lugo’s shoulders. For the first time in months, she feels like she can breathe.

The 29-year-old mother of four, whose first name is pronounced duh-RAIL, is homeless, despite holding down a solid job with the City of Virginia Beach for the past two years.

For the past couple of months, she’s been sleeping in her car or on friends’ couches.

Most recently, she wound up at Haven House, a homeless shelter for families run by the nonprofit ForKids out of a converted Victorian home in Ocean View.

Lawson Lugo said it was a blessing. But living in the house alongside 37 others left her feeling confined and anxious, almost caged, as she tried to raise her daughter and work remotely while trawling apartment listings.

For her, a little elbow room makes all the difference.

“Now I can have a meal and sit down and eat it, and clean my dishes and put them away. That’s a process that makes you feel like you’re a real adult,” Lawson Lugo said, marveling at the modest furnishings around her. “I feel like a human being. I feel like a decent person right now.”

Welcome to the Landmark Center for Children and Families, ForKids’ brand-new $17.5 million regional homeless shelter and headquarters, which represents a rebirth both for those moving in and the nonprofit behind the facility.

More welcoming, less alienating

The block-long brick building is perched right up against the sidewalk and beside a local library and public park, with art on the outside walls and a rooftop garden patio.

A casual observer could be forgiven for confusing the shiny new building in South Norfolk for any of the recently developed apartment buildings in downtown Norfolk or Ghent.

But it’s not just some swanky new condo complex.

ForKids, which started as a shelter service in Ocean View in the 1980's, has grown into one of Hampton Roads’ leading homeless services providers.

Earlier this month, after seven years in the pipeline, the first families moved into the transitional shelter at 1001 Poindexter St. The building, still getting finishing touches, will be dedicated this fall with a grand opening event.

ForKids will move 110 staff members to the building, consolidating counseling and support operations from six scattered sites around Norfolk. The shelter will have 135 beds, nearly tripling the group’s sheltering capacity, though McCormick has said it will be rare for all to be filled on a given night.

But it’s not just more beds and centralized offices.

ForKids CEO Thaler McCormick said the new facilities will open new avenues to chip away at the cycle of poverty that plagues their clients.

The Landmark Center was designed, inside and out, to look like anything but a homeless shelter.

“We wanted it to feel like an urban apartment building,” McCormick said.

The interior of the building looks much like any other modern apartment or office building, but softer.

“Lots of natural light, a soft color pallet, as much natural wood as you can bring in, living plants — anything to make it less institutional,” McCormick said.

The walls are covered in art made by the children from the shelter or in the group’s after-school programs. Seven more pieces of art, blown up into 20-foot tall murals, ring the outside of the building to create an art walk.

Employing so-called “trauma-informed design,” the facility aims to be more welcoming and less alienating. And it isn’t just meant to soothe those moving in. McCormick says her caseworkers and staff encounter heartbreaking stories of loss and anxiety on a daily basis while working with these homeless families.

The building is effectively split down the middle — a lobby and offices in the front that house things like caseworkers and the regional housing crisis hotline, with the shelter, classrooms and cafeteria on the back half of the building — designed in part so nobody living in the shelter will have to come through the front lobby to get to their room.

Putting the caseworkers offices and shelter in the same building will let ForKids work more efficiently, McCormick said. Before, the Haven House shelter was 30 minutes from the nearest ForKids office. Now, it’s a 20-second walk down the hall.

Downstairs, five classrooms, an art room and an unfinished “makerspace” workshop will bolster after-school programs for 120 children. It’ll also become a hub for adult education.

Providing temporary housing is only half of the nonprofit’s mission: enhanced education for kids and adults will help them tackle the cycle-of-poverty problem.

“The education center is game changing for us,” McCormick said.

A café with an industrial kitchen will feed 150 people every day, nearly four times the 38 people the Haven House kitchen could serve with its residential refrigerator.

Beyond the bedrooms, the second and third floors of the shelter each has laundry rooms and large communal spaces including televisions and computers, with furniture that can be moved around and used for group therapy sessions.

For the rooms, McCormick said they had to walk a fine line between making it a humane, livable space but not so much like a regular apartment that people wouldn’t want to leave. The individual rooms don’t have their own bathrooms, or full kitchens.

The shelter is, after all, still meant to be transitional housing, she points out. The more families that can use this as a springboard to a new apartment or house, the more families ForKids can move into the shelter and ultimately help.

Finding a home

Like those they’re serving, ForKids spent a long time trying to find its new home.

The group spent three years trying to nail down a location to build the new facility in Norfolk, where ForKids started and had most of its operations. With no luck, it started looking elsewhere and honed in on South Norfolk, a place that has for years been scrambling for revitalization and new investment.

Besides offering easy access to the highway — an important element for a regional group operating a fleet of vans to move folks around Hampton Roads — South Norfolk has given them something homeless shelters rarely get: a warm welcome.

“South Norfolk sees this as a catalyst for growth and change” and has celebrated the new facility unlike any other community they’ve seen, McCormick said.

“I’ve faced community resistance for building a single family home,” she said, pointing to pushback against efforts to expand ForKids’ shelters in Ocean View years ago from an array of civic groups.

Joe Josue, the president of the South Norfolk Civic League and the owner of Southside Barbeque, right down the block from the Landmark Center, said many initially recoiled when ForKids started poking around the area.

“South Norfolk had a problem with homelessness, and it scared some people away,” Josue said. “People’s first instinct was ‘we don’t need any homeless in South Norfolk.’ ”

The one-time independent city of South Norfolk has long struggled with revitalization. The development of a mixed-use condo building where the public library now resides and the replacement of the decrepit 22nd Street Bridge that bookends the east end of South Norfolk’s main drag has helped.

Josue was initially skeptical. But after one conversation with McCormack about the vision for the center, he and his wife were convinced and evangelized for the project to neighbors and at public meetings.

Now that the building’s just about done and operations are spinning up, Josue said the community is buzzing.

“I don’t think the majority of people thought that it would look like this. It’s state of the art,” he said.

Local philanthropists and fundraisers covered much of the cost, but funding also came from surprising sources.

The planting of fruit and nut trees around the property, as well as the rooftop vegetable garden, earned the facility a designation as an “urban orchard” and brought in money from the federal Department of Forestry. The National Endowment of the Arts has contributed as well.

McCormick said they were fighting for every red cent they could muster, but the campaign ground to a halt when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March last year. ForKids still needed more than a million dollars, which it ultimately received from several cities, contributing CARES Act funding to get it over that final hurdle.

Now, overnight clients and office staff are moving in on Poindexter Street, as crews put the finishing touches on the kitchen and the door access locks that will let families come and go.

Back inside, Lawson Lugo is eager to take 3-year-old Sade to break in the shelter’s bathtub — one of the perks of being the first to move in.

But first, it’s play time. Sade seems to have claimed a top bunk, hustling up and down the ladder over and over. She turns her boundless energy to a rubber ball, bouncing it around the room while her mom talks to shelter staff.

And then there were the little gifts waiting when they moved in: a baby doll and a pink My Little Pony that Sade is now toting around the hall outside their room.

“She was excited to see it and now she won’t let it go. She hasn’t had toys in a minute,” Lawson Lugo said. Books and toys have been placed in all the rooms, and the families that move in will take them with them when they leave.

Out the window, the May morning’s skies are clear and blue. But Lawson Lugo’s cheeks are wet.

“I’ve already cried 10 times,” she said. “This is the best day of my life.”


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