The Rev. John Ohmer, rector of the historic Falls Church Episcopal in the heart of downtown Falls Church, announced last week that his congregation is seriously contemplating “taking in” a Syrian refugee family.
Ohmer has found a friend in Christopher Fay, executive director of Homestretch, Inc., the Falls Church-based non-profit that has grown since 1992 in its mission to place homeless persons into their own homes through comprehensive combination of training, education and services.
Fay and Ohmer fortuitously came across each other last week at the Ireland’s Four Provinces restaurant, within a few blocks of both entities, the Falls Church Episcopal and Homestretch. The News-Press was also on hand.
The news of the church’s plans fell on the right ears right away. The organization that Fay leads has a phenomenal history of success in righting former homeless families since it was founded de novo by former Falls Church City Councilman Kieran Sharpe, who is completing an extended term on the Falls Church School Board this week, and Nancy Taxon.
With a goal from the beginning of achieving self-sufficiency for homeless families, Homestretch was begun by Sharpe and Taxon with a single family.
When Taxon retired in 2006, Fay came in to lead the operations and growth of the organization, which now has 26 employees, including 18 full time, at its 303 S. Maple Ave. location in Falls Church. At any given time, it is handling about 55 families.
Recently Homestretch was profiled by John Kelly in the Washington Post as a participant in its Helping Hand program, and the subject was its full time credit counselor Heather Lynskey, a CPA who decided her life would be more meaningful helping formerly homeless families achieve self-sufficiency through handling their debt circumstances and other credit matters.
Homestretch’s approach is to work with families for about two years and have as a result a very high success rate. They work with their clients to find work, to develop employable skills, to make money and get out of debt, to resolve any residual legal issues and to handle the long term responsibilities associated with home ownership and family development.
“Our average client is a single parent with a child or children,” Fay told the News-Press last week. “They are referred to us by homeless shelters in the region, and we address everything that is wrong with their circumstances.”
Most often, he added, people from foreign countries come to them as victims of domestic violence and the program is an alternative to being sent back to their home country where the patterns of abuse will recur. “We’re willing to listen and help,” Fay said. “The victim of domestic violence usually puts up with seven abusive incidents before leaving for good. We counsel them so that they don’t have to put up with such repetitions.”
“We take enough time with them,” he added, and in an average case clients can find an initial job within 30 days and get enrolled in school for training in a skill that could earn them an upwardly-mobile job. The goal is to qualify for jobs in nursing or hospitality work which can take up to three years. But at the conclusion, a client can be making $75,000 a year or more.
“We succeed by taking this extra time,” Fay said. “Our clients achieve an average 147 percent increase in income, zero debt and bank savings of $5,000.”
He cited the case of a woman who was in a shelter for six months before being referred to Homestretch. It turned out she was a gynecologist in Pakistan, but came to the U.S. as a wife and mother. Here, she was forced to flee from an abusive husband, and became suicidal. She got a job at McDonald’s. At Homestretch, it took two years for her to develop her English-speaking skills and as a result she became a licensed gynecologist here.
This success is contrasted with holding down a minimum wage job with minimal English speaking skills.
It also contrasts with the “rapid rehousing” policy toward the homeless that is the official policy in Virginia, Fay said. Although services are offered, none are required and skill levels remain lacking, he noted. Among the requirements to work with Homestretch, a client must agree to find work and 10 percent of their gross income must go into a managed account to handle debt obligations.
Ten percent of Homestretch clients become home buyers within two to three years as their credit ratings rise, their income grows and educational degrees are achieved. One client began as a waiter, and recently opened her own restaurant in Old Town Alexandria.
Homestretch clients become real estate agents, accountants, cosmetologists, dental assistants, bank loan officers, pharmacists and so on, according to Fay.
“The City of Falls Church has been very good to us,” he added, and he said that there are local businesses that “adopt” them, as well, such as the Excella Consultants, an IT consulting firm that donated $100,000.
Fay says that a goal is to replicate the Homestretch process elsewhere, but so far the programs are few and far between.
Eager for any last minute tax-deductible contributions before the end of the year, Homestretch receives mail at 303 S. Maple St., Falls Church, VA 22046.