Driving west on Main Street, past Foushee, it's easy to miss the red brick corner house partially hidden by a tall wooden fence and broad, rubbery-leafed magnolias. If you happen to be passing that corner in midafternoon, you may see a school bus stopped there, letting off a handful of impossibly cute school kids with braids, barrettes and shiny white sneakers. If the number of children seems like a lot, that's because the brick building isn't a traditional house.
It's one arm of The Emergency Shelter, Inc., and it houses 10 single women and 20 of their children. Executive Director Janice Fatzinger sits on the board of Homeward, and discusses the group from within a chaotic, paper-strewn office dominated by a large computer cabinet behind her desk, crowned by an impressive array of computer programs for dummies books. Fatzinger explains that the goal of Homeward is to put a system in place that will address every homeless person's vast array of needs to help homeless people from the minute they become homeless until the time they move into permanent housing again, and with all of the steps in between.
Fatzinger says she's amazed at how the recently completed HUD application meetings finally came together. "I might have been one of those that was a little surprised [at the positive results]," Fatzinger jokes. "We're riding a high right now."
While Fatzinger jokes, she's quick to explain how formidable the task is that Homeward has before it. She has to turn families away every day and admits that some people are still skeptical of what Homeward is trying to do.
But downstairs, one resident, Pamela Buskey, who has been at ESI since March 1, tells a story that shows the progress Homeward is making. Buskey, 39, sits nestled in a chair in the shelter's common room while she waits for five of her seven children to return home from school. She says she became homeless after she lost her job and was evicted in January. She declines to give details about her job loss.
Buskey didn't know what to do when she got evicted, but she knew that as desperately as she wanted to keep her family together, with five children aged 10 years to 17 months (her other two children live elsewhere) she couldn't prevail upon friends and family. She was homeless.
Buskey called the United Way. She was told when she called that CARITAS had room for her and all of her children. She stayed with CARITAS all winter long, and when that program ended in March, they placed her in The Emergency Shelter. The Emergency Shelter counseled Buskey, saw to it that her children got into school, and got her a job. This month, she'll move into a new apartment with the help of a Section 8 voucher. Like a food stamp for homes, the voucher, provided by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, serves as rent to any landlord, anywhere in the city, willing to accept it.
Buskey doesn't know where she'll move yet, perhaps the West End or Fulton. "I know it won't be Fairfield, Whitcomb or Creighton," she says with relief-tinged joy.
Buskey praises the shelter, but says "I'm looking forward to getting up out of here." She pauses, and thinks about the shelter for a minute. "To know that so many people really do care, ..." Buskey says, almost to herself. "These are people who care. They don't have to, but they think of us," she explains.
Buskey says she has never heard of Homeward, but her smooth transition from eviction to shelter and eventually to permanent housing is exactly the kind of experience Homeward wants to provide for every homeless person. And services the group set up over the last year were integral in Buskey's road.
Gigi Amateau, the United Way's assistant vice president for community resources, worked last summer on setting up one clearinghouse telephone number that every shelter in the region would call to give an updated count of their available beds. From that information, the United Way could instantly tell people who called seeking help where to turn.
"Not one family was turned away this winter," Amateau says. Including Buskey's. "That's very different from before. We knew where the beds were."
The number has another benefit that Amateau is quick to point out. By fielding all of the calls from homeless people seeking shelter, and logging them, Amateau can discern right away where the immediate, emergency shelter needs are. And with Homeward, she can address them. In early May, Amateau fielded a number of calls from single women who had no place to go. None of the shelters in the area had room for them, and they were being turned away. She turned to Gordon.
"Reggie elevated that [need] to a communitywide conversation," Amateau says. He thought of the spacious, roomy, newly renovated lobby in Freedom House on Hull Street. They agreed to put up 10 beds in that lobby and handle the case management of the occupants. The United Way donated money to fund the program, and the churches that supply Freedom House's evening meals came through with a promise of 10 more dinners each night. The makeshift women's shelter is slated to open on June 7.
"That's four weeks between identifying a problem and solving it," Amateau says. "I think it's an amazing testament to having one place whose sole purpose is to coordinate these services."
Homeward also made available the RRHA Section 8 vouchers, which should enable Buskey to find a safe home for herself and her children. The United Way's Amateau was able to secure 20 vouchers, and they will help formerly homeless people to get away from public housing projects and away from problems like drugs and crime that may have contributed to their becoming homeless in the first place.
She says that the need for the vouchers was identified last August. "By February it was done," Amateau says. "They are really moving at an unbelievable pace. Since the day they started it's results, results, results."
As proud as Reggie Gordon is of the blanket acquisition, the clearinghouse number, the emergency women's home in Freedom House, the Section 8 vouchers and the long list of people he's brought together to discuss issues surrounding homelessness, he's most proud of a $120,000 grant Homeward secured in March from the Annabella R. Jenkins Foundation to establish Richmond's first 24-hour medical respite-care center. The center should be up and running this summer, and will provide a place for homeless people just released from the hospital, or those homeless people with medical problems that don't require an emergency room but still need rest and recuperation. The need for such a center was first identified by providers in 1989. What officials and providers have recognized as a need for 10 years Homeward has been able to accomplish in 10 months.
Candace Brown, a case worker at the Emergency Shelter, Inc., wrote the grant proposal with Homeward. "Since Homeward got on board we've gotten a whole lot more task-oriented, and we've gotten a whole lot more done," Brown says.
While Pamela Buskey's story of seamless care is still unusual in Richmond, Gordon and his colleagues hope to make it the norm. There are still needs being identified and addressed. Last week, a group of Homeward people traveled to Louisville, Ky. to visit The Healing Place, a nationally recognized substance abuse treatment shelter that the group hopes to duplicate here within the next year or two. This summer, a new shelter should open up at McGuire Hospital to meet the needs of Richmond's homeless veterans. There is still a need for affordable housing for families, and transitional housing for families, couples and single men and women. And perhaps most pressing of all, Homeward's grant expires in November, so Gordon is trying to figure out where to find the group's necessary operating expenses. He's hoping for a corporate partnership like New Orleans's UNITY project enjoys with Texaco, but he doesn't have too many leads yet.
But the community is taking notice. Gordon has been contacted by officials from Hanover County and the city's own Downtown Clean and Sweep Ambassadors. Wyatt thinks the community is buying into Homeward's program more and more. "'We'll go ask Reggie at Homeward,' you hear that a lot," Wyatt says.
And he may hear it more, if Linda Grasewicz has any say. The executive director of St. Joseph's Villa, Grasewicz recently nominated Homeward for the prestigious nationwide HUD Best Practice Award, which HUD gives each year to the most effective service providers in the nation.
While Gordon relishes the thought of that recognition, he says it's far more important to focus on the task at hand and the goals of the group: the elimination of homelessness.
Underneath a bridge that spans the James River below Oregon Hill, just west of the War Memorial, a riot of colors breaks the grayish brown swath of concrete, rocks and dirt. A tattered, plaid yellow easy chair sits atop an old, light-green blanket, and two more blankets, one pink, one purple, lie on the ground around the chair. Green plastic soda bottles and brown glass beer bottles are strewn haphazardly around the chair and under the bridge, and an aluminum bat rests beside the chair. It's a makeshift home, some call it a smitty, for one or more of Richmond's homeless, and from the bottles and food wrappers littering the tiny encampment, it's clear that the site is still in use.
But Gordon would like to think that eventually there won't be a need for a camp like this. By creating a seamless web of social services and then attacking the causes of homelessness, Gordon hopes that such squats will fall slowly into decline and disappear completely from the Richmond cityscape, and that the need for his own organization will disappear with it.
"In 10 years, I hope we don't have to sit around and talk about the numbers of homeless, and how the services are lacking," Gordon says. "It's time, our community is ready to go to the