A story is told about the great musician Yo Yo Ma in which he decided on a whim to play his cello in the subway of New York City. A few music aficionados recognized him and contributed dollars to the hat he had placed on the ground before him. The vast majority of people, however, walked past him without realizing the magnitude of talent busking for dollars before them. It is not uncommon for us to fail to recognize gems that lie in plain sight.
Sometimes I feel that Homestretch is just such a gem, hidden in plain sight in the center of Falls Church. Concealed within an office building across from Bowl America, Homestretch is achieving outcomes that make it a model for the nation. The mission of Homestretch is to empower homeless families to secure permanent housing and attain the skills, knowledge and hope they need to achieve self-sufficiency. The program aims to provide more than housing – it aims to create a context in which homeless families can completely alter the course of their lives.
Did you know that over 2,500 children escaped homelessness right here in Falls Church?
And they do. Consider the obstacles and deficits these families face. All are homeless and in poverty. Most are led by single mothers earning less than $7.50 an hour, with crippling debt, poor credit, and few marketable skills. Some face legal problems or language barriers. Over half are fleeing domestic violence. Some are asylum seekers from war torn countries such as the Sudan or Afghanistan. Still others suffer from mental illness or chronic health problems. When they first come to us, few can envision the progress that is within their reach. Once in our care, however, they realize that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to achieve their dreams. Most families seize the opportunity and work tirelessly. In fact, 85% of Homestretch families secure permanent housing and achieve self-sufficiency. This year is our 20th anniversary. By this fall, we will have housed almost 1,000 families, of which 850 left the rolls of homelessness forever. That includes almost 3,000 children.
Did you know that over 2,500 children escaped homelessness right here in Falls Church? This is what I mean by a hidden gem.
Consider these other accomplishments. One service Homestretch offers is money management and credit counseling. It is not uncommon for a family, by the time they become homeless, to accumulate debilitating debts which will stand squarely in their way as they try to rebuild their lives. Unless they clear their debts and restore credit, they will be unlikely to rent a home or find a decent job. While in Homestretch, they save 10% of their income and live on tight budgets so their debts are paid off swiftly. This last year, many families reached the milestone of becoming debt free, and 10% of Homestretch families qualified to become first time home buyers. Imagine – going from homelessness, poverty and crippling debt to becoming debt free, financially stable and qualifying to buy a home, in only two years. It is happening here in Falls Church, at Homestretch, every day.
I wonder if we could accomplish this kind of success if we were not in Falls Church. We have a wealth of support in the community – churches, like Dulin United Methodist, our City officials, private companies like Vantage Fitness, Jefferson One, Stifel and Capra and the Falls Church Housing Corporation, to name just four, plus individual donors and volunteers – that we can surround our homeless families with an abundance of love, convincing them that the hard work before them is achievable. The location of a program like Homestretch matters a great deal – it must be in a safe and welcoming community, one that embraces diversity and opportunity. The phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” could be modified in our case to read, “it takes Falls Church to transform the lives of homeless families”.
In May, we experienced the joy of seeing one such homeless family achieve its dreams. The family is a survivor of domestic violence; the mother took her kids and fled when her husband threatened to slay her and their children. Although she didn’t know a word of English, her children did; in fact, her oldest son was admitted to New York University on a full scholarship. During their two years in Homestretch, the mother not only learned English but got licensed in cosmetology, her three younger children have all excelled in school and her oldest son, whose name is Michael, not only graduated from New York University, but also earned the University’s Outstanding Graduate Award. From homelessness to the top award at New York University – that is not only Michael’s story; it is the story of Homestretch – and it could only happen in Falls Church. Thank you to a great small city.
Christopher Fay is the executive director of Falls Church-based Homestretch.