Self-sufficiency was something Carla always strived for. It was what led her to flee her volatile household as a teenager and skip out on school in order to pursue an independent lifestyle.
The “self” in sufficiency took on a broader meaning when she became pregnant with her son at 17 years old. Now vested in his wellbeing, but lacking any true place to call home, Carla had no choice but to rely on the only people she knew.
The result was nowhere near ideal. Carla traded one hostile residence for another as she split time between staying with her abusive parents or the abusive father of her child. After more than a year of bouncing around, stability was at a premium — she had become homeless.
“I didn’t want to keep being vulnerable to abuse, so I left,” Carla said.
A friend’s recommendation turned her to Alternative House: Assisting Young Mothers (AYM), a program that arranges housing for new mothers in need for up to 18 months. The refuge came with stringent conditions. Regular contact with a case manager, nightly curfew, weekly work and school hours requirements, visitation parameters and rooming with another young mother all became part of Carla’s regular life.
Along with those responsibilities came access to individual and group therapy, as well as mandatory contributions to a savings account, not to mention getting a hard and fast lesson in time management. Carla upheld her end of the bargain and navigated the program dutifully, which allowed her to enter into a new, less demanding living arrangement with Northern Virginia Family Service (NVFS).
NVFS is a nonprofit organization that provides tools and guidance to achieve the ultimate goal that Carla sought when she was younger: self-sufficiency. The organization’s services include providing food, physical and mental healthcare, childcare and more to those in need throughout Northern Virginia. Its most sought-after resource, however, continues to be housing accommodations.
Overseeing those programs is NVFS’ director of community housing, Kathy Bridgeman. She handles priority clients on a closed referral basis and provides rental, utility or relocation assistance, to name a few. Essentially, NVFS acts as a go-between for clients and general society, helping the former alleviate living expenses or prepare to interact with a landlord if they feel ill-equipped.
However, Bridgeman emphasizes that NVFS’ presence isn’t permanent, and teaching practices of sustainability can be a challenge for those clients getting their first taste of it.
“For some of our households, it’s just helping them understand budgeting, saving, making economic decisions that support them in the long run as opposed to short-term pleasure.” Bridgeman said.
“For some of our households, who maybe have been raised in public housing or been raised with a [public housing] voucher, [many believe that] ‘Oh well, I’m gonna get one too.’ While that may be true, you’re also committing yourself to a life of poverty, so all we can do is offer them options [and] resources to show where they can go.”
The accountability NVFS asks from its clients is seen as a fair trade given that the organization is investing its time and energy into developing someone’s human capital. Still, it doesn’t make the job easier when clients are declined housing services because they can’t or won’t fulfill the organization’s high expectations.
“I believe everyone has the right to be housed and it’s hard when you have to say ‘no’,” Bridgeman added. “It’s hard to hear [clients] say ‘You’re making me homeless.’ [However],I can only do what I can do, because folks who are doing what they need to are what these resources are for.”
Carla’s own experience with NVFS’ required accountability occurred soon after the birth of her second child. Opting for 12 weeks off from work while only receiving four weeks of paid leave, NVFS refused to comp a greater portion of Carla’s rent since it was deemed a personal decision.
“I took it upon myself to take 12 weeks to be with my newborn baby because I didn’t do that with my older son and I regret going [back] to work so quickly,” Carla said. “That bonding time with your child is so important, especially if I wanna go back to work and school immediately after [the leave ends].”
Although discontent with NVFS’ response, things could’ve fared worse for Carla had she not been as driven as she was. Most people breaking out of homelessness lack the financial reserves to brave almost two months without pay while still shouldering their full share of the rent.
Carla made her own luck by building up her personal savings so she could enjoy her maternity leave with peace of mind. Her frank nature discussing the event emitted her quiet, but palpable sense of pride. She knew she wouldn’t have been able to do this a few years ago. She knew she was getting closer to being independent.
But this is rarely the case. Eight weeks out of work with no reduction in rent is plenty of time to ruin someone’s temporary housing situation. It’s not long before the loss of a home segues into problems at work and puts a major strain on that person’s daily life.
This is just another example of the severe trauma the homeless population is so prone to. Unplanned setbacks can stump progress since they lack the safety nets most people take for granted. That’s why it is imperative for providers and nonprofits to understand how that trauma affects the people they’re working with, and subsequently, the programs they gear toward them. Integrating trauma-informed care for clients is a recent trend in social services. The NVFS Program for Survivors of Torture and Trauma is built around these practices and the organization’s director of workforce development, Julie Mullen, is taking initial steps to implement them in her programming as well.
“Our ability to understand the barriers is our biggest challenge because we didn’t live [their life],” Mullen said. “We’re working with a population who the government views as stable because they’re in transitional housing. And yet, when we get in there and start to work with them on what their career path is going to look like, it’s not the [traditional] A to B path.
“On the traditional career path, we tell ourselves ‘I’m gonna go to this college and major in this and then take this job,’” Mullen continued. “We’re talking about people who were just living in their car and now are in transitional housing. That is traumatic, and messes with your brain chemistry and your ability to make decisions.”
Familiarizing itself with the unique challenges of clients has been a learning process for NVFS, but one that’s made strides due to intensified research and attentiveness to client needs. Regardless, true progress depends on funding, and funders haven’t been as keen about the new methods NVFS is looking to employ until they gain more traction.
Even with that being the case, workforce development programs were never a concern for Carla. She carved her own professional path without assistance, working her way up from odd jobs to landing a steady spot as an administrative subcontractor. It’s not her dream job, but it’s helped her achieve the stability she sought as a teenager.
That stability has allowed Carla to take night classes while pursuing a degree in Integrative Studies for Language Arts. Best of all, it’s helped her reach the vaunted goal of true self-sufficiency. This month, Carla will be discharged from NVFS’ aid and ready to buy her own home. She knows she couldn’t have done it without help, which included helping herself.
“You can have a lot of opportunities and resources available to you, but if you don’t know how to use them the best way you can, it doesn’t matter how much people are trying to help you,” Carla said. “You have to take it upon yourself to ask questions. Take it upon yourself to make the plan and do it, or else you’re not going to get out of being homeless.”
It seems that her roughly four-year journey has come to an end. However, there’s no time to waste — being self-sufficient is a full-time job. Carla knows that better than anyone.