By Christopher Fay
Many of us might be surprised to learn that in our “Little City” of Falls Church, there are homeless families. We do not see them often; in fact, homeless mothers with children aren’t like the beggars who wait at intersections. They might be in a shelter, or sleep in their car, or hide at night curled up with blankets in a church classroom; but they avoid exposing their children to onlookers. Like the dad in the film “Life is Beautiful,” who made a Herculean effort to keep up the illusion for his son that they were not actually in a concentration camp, most homeless mothers will do everything in their power to protect their children from the harsh reality of homelessness. Yet tonight, there are over 1,000 homeless people in the Falls Church-Fairfax County area, of which six out of ten are families with children.
Homestretch houses 60 homeless families at a time or 100 families a year, all with children under the age of 18. Sixty percent of these families are survivors of domestic violence. The others have as many reasons for becoming homeless as there are crises in the world: human trafficking, unexpected health crises or disabilities, sudden death of loved ones, escaping violence in other nations, and severe prolonged unemployment. The fastest growing population at Homestretch is homeless veterans with children. What they have in common is that they are homeless, broke, in crisis, without resources and often devoid of hope; and with children in their care. The average age of a person in Homestretch is only eight years old.
I am not discussing this fact to spoil our holiday season; in fact, I wish to thank the residents of this wonderful city, including the City government, for their generosity in ensuring that these 60 or more homeless families have a beautiful home and holiday just like everyone else. Thanks to many local religious institutions, including Dulin United Methodist Church, Falls Church Episcopal, Columbia Baptist, Temple Rodef Shalom, New City Church, St. James, The Church of the Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, Emmanuel Lutheran, and Lewinsville and Idylwood Presbyterian Churches, and local businesses such as Vantage Fitness, Stewart Title, Cardinal Bank and Freddie Mac, plus many individual families in Falls Church, every single one of the homeless families in our care is receiving an abundance of gifts and food. I recall one mother from last year’s Christmas, with tears in her eyes, saying to me, “I could not believe that there are people out there, who do not even know me and my daughters, who care so much for us. I was astounded when I saw those presents, and when I watched my girls jumping up and down with joy I just broke down in tears. Tears of happiness.” A grant from the City helps pay for housing for six of these families, right here in our little city; one of these is a mother and daughter who were human trafficked from Eastern Europe.
This support does not begin or end with the holidays. Throughout the year, we receive incredible support from the community to fulfill our mission of empowering homeless families to secure permanent housing and attaining the skills, knowledge and hope they need to achieve self-sufficiency. We get help from city businesses, churches and residents in a myriad of ways: accountants help our clients with tax returns, lawyers provide pro bono legal help, companies provide teams to prepare apartments for incoming families, volunteers tutor adults and children, help teach Life Skills, donate cars, and provide school supplies and computers and household goods to the families. Over 800 volunteers helped us provide an incredibly comprehensive array of services to these families.
And it pays off. In April of 2012, a group of honor roll students from George Mason University conducted a poll of our graduates to determine how well they did after leaving our care. The result? 100% of those polled (68% of the total was reached for the poll) are still safely housed and employed two or more years after leaving Homestretch. That is a result to be proud of; and it is something we could not do without the help of all of you who act on the belief that “it is better to give than to receive.” The families often make dramatic progress. Some do so well that within a year of graduating from Homestretch, they become first time homebuyers; for the last five years, this was true for 10% of our graduates. Imagine, from homelessness to home ownership in roughly three years – that is a remarkable trajectory; and one worth celebrating around the dinner table as we give thanks for our own blessings. Thank you, Falls Church, for caring that much for the “least of these my brethren.”
Christopher Fay is Executive Director of Homestretch.