WOODBRIDGE, VIRGINIA - By all appearances, Richard is a strong, confident, middle-aged man. But unless you know his story, it would be hard to guess how hard he has worked to get his life back.
On this rainy summer morning, Richard, who asked us not to use his last name, treks quickly through a densely wooded area just off a busy roadway in northern Virginia, and begins to tell his story…
“Well, as you can see, this was my tent,” he says as he comes to a stop and gestures to a crumpled tent lying on the muddy ground. It's a stark reminder of his former life.
Richard lived in that tent in the woods for two years after losing his job.
“I wound up getting evicted, one thing led to another, and here I was,” he says in a somber voice.
“The worst thing about it was the summertime,” he adds, “’cause it gets really hot then.” It was the heat, and the mosquitoes, but also the loneliness, he says. “It’s not just food or material items; it’s having someone around to talk to.”
Why are they homeless?
But Richard’s story has a happy ending. He got housing -- and a job -- through StreetLight Community Outreach Ministries in Woodbridge, Virginia. StreetLight, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the poor and homeless in the region.
Executive Director Rose Powers says there are many factors that can lead to homelessness, but first and foremost is the lack of affordable housing. “Many of the people we work with, who are literally homeless, actually work, but they do not have the job skills or the educational level to command a job that pays an affordable wage,” she explains.
That’s the situation for Frankie, a U.S. veteran who still lives in the woods with her two dogs. Frankie works, but doesn’t make enough money to afford the high cost of rent in the area.
She’s hoping to find a better paying job so she can afford a permanent place to stay, but in the meantime is exploring her options with StreetLight and other agencies that are offering her assistance with housing and other support services.
Shelter from the storm
StreetLight makes regular visits into the woods, looking for people like Frankie. The organization leases six apartments and owns three houses for clients to live in, and can help with other housing alternatives.
Larry lived in the woods for four years, but now shares a cozy home with three other men. The house looks immaculate inside and out; a point of pride for the formerly homeless man.
“I feel very grateful to be here,” he says as he stands in the spotless kitchen. “I was hit by a truck. StreetLight took me in. They looked out for me. I feel totally blessed.”
The non-profit also works with the county government to provide temporary shelter and other supportive services. That includes a 48-bed shelter that’s open year-round, serving both men and women in search of a safe refuge.
The public-private collaboration has helped reduce the number of homeless people in the region from 400 (in 2016 and 2017), to 377 today, says Tony Turnage, Homeless Services Division Chief with the county's Department of Social Services.
That number can be reduced even further with longer-term housing options, he notes. “If we can start putting programs together such as affordable, permanent supportive housing projects, I think we can significantly make some inroads in reducing the number of persons we see homeless on an annual basis.”
And that is well on its way to happening, thanks to a large parcel of land that was recently donated to StreetLight by a local congregation, All Saints Church. While it’s just an open field right now, there are major plans for its development, says Rose Powers.
“Our goal is to build a multi-unit facility offering permanent supportive housing in an upscale apartment-style complex," she says, adding that the facility would offer "wraparound case management services addressing the multiple issues that have led to homelessness.”
That 24/7 support is crucial, Powers says, since many homeless individuals suffer from mental and physical health ailments. “We participated in a survey in 2010 and found that 30 percent of all the homeless were medically fragile -- they suffer from chronic health conditions such as diabetes, cancer or heart disease.”
It’s all a matter of raising money. StreetLight is funded by private funds, and county, state and federal grants and has been growing exponentially since its inception in 2004.
Those funds assist the needy with full-service initiatives, including a team of social workers and volunteer mentors who help clients navigate the job market and locate medical services. The ministry also provides a clothing closet, runs a generous food pantry offering fresh meats, fruits and vegetables and offers a free, lavish buffet at the church once a week.
The weekly dinners feed the needy, Powers explains, but they’re also designed to promote a sense of community.
“When we first started reaching out, way back in the mid-‘90s, we realized so many of the homeless were completely alone and they didn't realize that there were many others also living in the woods and so it helped them to connect.”
The homeless need more than just a roof over their head, she reiterates. “They need love, they need a chance to have dignity, they need to know that they have value, they need to know that people care about them.”
1.6 billion people do not have access to adequate shelter around the world, according to UN-Habitat. In the U.S. alone, nearly 554,000 people experienced homelessness on a single night in 2017. And that number is growing.
Richard, Frankie and Larry are just a few examples in a sea of staggering statistics. But organizations like StreetLight are crucial to their wellbeing, especially since they systematically seek out at-risk individuals one person at a time.
Today, Richard is keenly aware – and appreciative -- of the support StreetLight has provided him.
“I went from living in a tent in the woods… to living in my own place, having a purpose. I have a job. I don’t have to worry about my necessities in life. They basically helped me get back on my feet and give me more self-confidence,” he says.
Today, Richard works for the organization, helping out where he can, and using his craftsman’s skills on restoration projects within the ministry and its various dwellings. He also acts as mentor and friend to others who have been where he once was. He hopes that by sharing his story, they too will be inspired to make a better life for themselves.
“People have a stereotype where they look down on homeless people and think that we don't want to work, that we're useless and we’re all drug addicts and alcoholics, which is really not the case" he says. "Most of us are just people who want to get back on our feet.”