Stories Of Struggle, Endings Of Hope

Posted on August 31, 2010

I have asked Alison Jones-Nassar, VSH’s volunteer program coordinator, to write this week’s blog. Thanks, Alice

Reading an article in this weekend’s Daily Press reminded me of the response I always get whenever I tell someone I work with Virginia Supportive Housing. The circumstances may differ and the details might change slightly, but it’s always a variation on the same theme.

The article, entitled “Mom, Family Escape Homelessness,” describes the efforts of a young Newport News woman, Suzanne Richardson, to overcome a mountain of obstacles in order to avoid a housing crisis and maintain a safe home for her mother, brother, and two young children, Anais (5) and Jamere (1).

Some of the obstacles Suzanne has encountered are the results of mistakes made, starting with her own decision to drop out of high school and her first pregnancy as a teenager. Others are through no fault of her own. Her mother is on disability. The home they were renting went into foreclosure.

Despite some bad judgments, Suzanne has made every attempt to rectify her mistakes for the sake of her family by following the rules. She achieved her GED, went back to college to become a certified massage therapist, and graduated with honors. She found a job and received high recommendations from her supervisor and co-workers.

But in the face of foreclosure, her minimum-wage job could not cover the cost of the security deposit and first month’s rent for a new place. She didn’t have enough money to pay the electricity bills or put food on the table. And then her car broke down.

Combined, the obstacles Suzanne has faced would be enough to overwhelm anyone – and yet she keeps persevering. “I just thought, ‘I’ve got to keep moving. I’ve got to try my best.” She has jumped through all the required hoops, working hard and never asking for favors or special treatment. But somehow, it’s never quite enough.

Whenever I tell someone I work with VSH, this is the story I hear again and again. A brother, a daughter, a friend, a neighbor, someone from the congregation. A lost job, an abusive parent, a divorce, a car breakdown, a medical emergency, an emotional crisis. There are so many stories out there, so many people who are struggling so hard. Some of them, like Suzanne, are barely managing to hold on by the skin of their teeth. Many others are not.

I often wonder how I would cope in a situation like that. If I was in Suzanne’s place, would I have the resilience to keep going? To keep following the rules? To smile for my kids and believe in a happy ending? My work with Virginia Supportive Housing allows me to be a part of an organization that makes a real difference in the lives of people like Suzanne. By getting the community involved in what we do, I help to increase awareness of all those stories out there and mobilize the resources required to help. The good news is that VSH makes happy endings possible. Are you ready to find out more about how you can give someone’s story a happy ending?

Not all disabilities are created equal

Posted on August 3, 2010

On July 26th, there was a celebration at the White House to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the passing of the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA), which for the first time protected the rights of people with physical and mental disabilities, and prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, public services and public accommodations

For those of you who don’t know, I am legally blind.  While I don’t consider myself disabled in the full sense of the word, I can get accommodations under the ADA.  However, since my handicap is physical it does not have nearly the stigma as mental illness.

As a matter of fact, I would venture to guess that many people don’t know that people with mental illness are covered under the ADA.  Working at Virginia Supportive Housing has taught me that people with mental illness are discriminated against in housing and employment more often than physically disabled people and many times their disability is far more debilitating.  People with serious mental illness often become homeless because of their disability and have a very difficult time getting into and staying in permanent housing.  It is estimated that nationally 20 to 25% of individuals experiencing homelessness have a serous mental illness.

At VSH, we are successful at helping people with mental illness obtain and maintain permanent housing because of the clinical nature of the services we provide.  We have seen many people whose lives have been transformed through patient and consistent services that are available to them, in some cases 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Last week, I was especially heartened to see that Nathanial Ayers performed in front of President Obama at the commemoration of the ADA.  I was glad to see that Mr. Ayers was still doing well.  Mr. Ayers is a musician who was homeless for many years due to his mental illness.  He was befriended by Steve Lopez, a journalist with the Los Angeles Times who wrote a book, The Soloist, that eventually became a movie.  Mr. Lopez and a nonprofit supportive housing provider took the time to work with Mr. Ayers and get him into permanent housing where he is living with his disability with respect and dignity.  Another success story!

But there are still a lot of people out there who are disabled due to mental illness who still need compassion, respect and a place to live.  I hope all of us continue to work hard to make sure that persons with mental illness are afforded the same opportunities and rights that Mr. Ayers received so that in 20 years when we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the ADA there are many more success stories.

Observations and Comments about Homeward’s Homeless Simulation: Look at the Shoes Under my Bed

Posted on May 4, 2010

Two weeks ago during Affordable Housing Awareness Week, Homeward held a Homeless Simulation where people could experience what it was like to be homeless and get the services that are needed. Participants in the simulation were given real life situations and were asked to assume the role of a homeless person or family. One situation also included someone who was on the brink of homelessness and needed prevention services.

Homeward did a great job planning and carrying out the event. I attended the de-briefing at St. Paul’s Church and the responses of the participants indicated that the simulation was an enlightening experience. The participants really got a sense of what people who are homeless go through just getting basic services like food and health care. Participants also got a taste of what it’s like trying to get from downtown to southside without a car.   (Read one person’s account of his experience during the Homeless Simulation, including the trials and tribulations of trying to find the right bus.)  Participants were overwhelmed with the paperwork that was required in order to receive services at a government agency. Why is that not surprising?

The participants gave all of the service providers a gold star for their responsiveness to people in need and the respect that everyone received as they waited for services or got help. When asked during the de-briefing if there were other services that were needed, no one could think of any.

I have to say that at that point, my heart sank. No one mentioned the critical need for permanent housing. After considering the characteristics of the simulation and its participants, I decided to give everyone at the de-briefing the benefit of the doubt. I believe participants were simply overwhelmed with obtaining the very basic needs for survival. People experiencing homelessness have to do so much just to get the basics: food, clothes, a bed for the night and if they’re sick, health care.

A permanent place to stay may not have been in the forefront of the simulation participants’ minds while they were standing in line to get food, bus passes etc. They were most likely thinking about the moment; bemused by the challenges they faced just to eat or travel a few miles.

As evidenced by the simulation, we as a community do a great job with the basics. Now, what more can we do? More importantly, how can we surpass expensive emergency services and solve the root of the problem?

When I finally had a turn to speak I talked about the other solution, besides prevention, to homelessness … permanent housing.  Participants around the table nodded their heads and understood that this was the end game. Emergency housing and services are needed, but perhaps the most basic need of people experiencing homelessness is a home — a permanent place to live.

One participant asked me what they could do to help, which was a wonderful question.  Here are some things that we (VSH) said:

These are just a few things that we can do so that we can begin to focus our efforts on the solutions to homelessness and transform our system. While VSH fully supports the Homeless Simulation, maybe we need a segment of the day to focus more on the permanent solutions to the problem.  It could be titled “Walk in Their Shoes and Then See Those Shoes Under Their Beds”.

VSH Offers Meaningful Volunteer Experiences

Posted on December 8, 2009

What makes a volunteer experience meaningful? A feeling of connection to the community? A sense of contributing to a cause you feel passionate about? An awareness that your action is a real response to a real need?

At Virginia Supportive Housing, we seek to transform the lives of our community’s homeless population by providing permanent housing and support services, and volunteers can play a critical role in that mission. A variety of opportunities are available at VSH for both individuals and groups that promote meaningful connection, engagement, and action.

Whether you are landscaping one of our affordable housing properties, collecting food & toiletry items, assembling move-in packages, or helping to serve a holiday meal to our clients (see the photos on our Facebook page!), VSH is a place where volunteers can transform and be transformed by their service.

Ready to be transformed? To apply or find out more, contact the volunteer coordinator at 804-836-1061 or [email protected].

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