No handouts, just a hand

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 2, 2005

Shelter for the Homeless seeks to help for long haul

By Allison T. Williams

If all you want is a hot meal and a place to rest your head, don’t bother going to the Suffolk Shelter for the Homeless.

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The Finney Avenue homeless shelter- whose policy of closing on major holidays has thrust it into the media spotlight in recent months-is about changing lives, said Terry Miller, the facility’s executive director.

&uot;Changing behavior is the hardest thing anyone ever has to do,&uot; she said. &uot;The people who come here are going to work.

&uot;Most people leave at the end of six weeks with a job…and oftentimes they are rebuilding bridges and going back home with family and friends,&uot; she continued. &uot;Only this time, they are going back with a job and they are able to be a contributing member of the household.

&uot;That makes it all worthwhile for us.&uot;

Suffolk isn’t plagued by chronic homelessness, such as people sleeping on park benches or living from their vehicles, Miller said. Just a few of the 69 Western Tidewater families served by the shelter last year were in that sort of situation.

&uot;The people we see here overwhelmingly are people who have been evicted,&uot; Miller said. &uot;They are historically poor and when it’s compounded with the loss of a job or medical bills, they just don’t know how to get beyond it.&uot;

That’s one of the first issues that Miller and her right-hand woman, case manager Andrea Fowler, want shelter occupants to understand. A newcomer’s first task is to work out a monthly budget showing all necessary expenditures: rent, food, health insurance and the like.

&uot;A budget is the perfect tool for getting started,&uot; Miller said. &uot;It lets people see realistically-often for the first time-how much money they need to be making just to survive.

&uot;It teaches them to look at the big picture,&uot; she said. &uot;The figure might be overwhelming but these people need to be freaked out in order to see what it costs for them to live each month.&uot;

It takes most people a minimum of $1,300 monthly to live in Suffolk and surrounding communities, she added.

The next step is to help shelter occupants-if they aren’t already employed-find a job, Miller said.

Fowler meets with each resident for counseling at least once a week to look at specific issues, including goals, job skills, good work habits, resume preparation, housing applications, the importance of paying rent on time, healthcare needs and responsible citizenship.

&uot;She meets with them for an hour or three hours, as long as it takes to help them begin to address their individual challenges,&uot; Miller said.

Recently, Fowler even took two shelter residents to the Chesapeake employment agency used by Unilever Lipton Tea to fill out applications and be interviewed for jobs. One of them is now working in the West Washington Street plant.

The shelter will increasingly begin tapping into the wealth

of job-hunting and workplace skill seminars offered through the Suffolk Department of Social Services, Miller said.

&uot;We don’t need to be duplicating services,&uot; Miller said. &uot;Until recently, I never realized the extent of services that Social Services can help us with.

&uot;We try to push clients to talk openly with their social workers to get in the department’s programs.&uot;

The shelter gives homeless families or women with children a place to stay for up to six weeks. All clients must be referred by social service departments in Suffolk, Franklin or Isle of Wight and Southampton counties.

But the stay doesn’t come without basic rules that must be followed: The adults must be working-or taking steps to get work-daily throughout the week. The shelter will work with the Department of Social Services to provide childcare during after-school hours. Every resident is responsible for daily chores.

Those rules aren’t always popular, Miller said, who in recent months has evicted several families after the adults refused to pull their weight around the shelter.

Perhaps the most memorable eviction came in November 2004, when six families were thrown out just days before Thanksgiving for failure to follow rules. That incident drew attention from both the media and city, who stepped in to put the families up in a motel for the long holiday weekend.

&uot;We do have rules and regulations,&uot; said Cola Cobb, chairman of the shelter’s board of directors. &uot;Sometimes we have people who don’t want to stay when they find out we have rules.

&uot;But if we didn’t have them, we wouldn’t have a shelter for long. It would be torn to pieces,&uot; he said. &uot;We really try to help people with our programs but we can only do so much. People have got to want to help themselves.&uot;

Although homelessness is rapidly growing in the more urban areas, Suffolk and the rest of Western Tidewater doesn’t seem to be experiencing that trend, Miller said.

&uot;The numbers tell us there is not a huge homeless population in Suffolk,&uot; Miller said. &uot;We have not sought to expand the shelter.

&uot;The numbers say we have a bed vacancy net at the end of the year and we can accommodate those who come to us.&uot;

But the 36-bed shelter is rolling into its busy season now, she said.

&uot;When it’s cold outside, only people in truly bad straits are homeless,&uot; Miller said. &uot;Landlords do not evict and electric companies don’t cut off the power when the temperatures are freezing outside.

&uot;But around March, the phones begin ringing off the hook. All those people who didn’t pay their bills last winter are getting evicted.&uot;

Miller and Cobb both see a need for a men’s shelter. Currently, homeless men without families have to be taken to Norfolk’s Union Mission or other facilities.

&uot;We’ve had plans for a men’s shelter for quite awhile,&uot; said Cobb. &uot;But a lot of things got put on hold after Sept. 11. We’re hoping to get those back on the drawing board soon.&uot;

Suffolk has a need for transitional housing-an apartment or house that a homeless family could rent moderately for a year while saving money to move into traditional housing, Miller said.

But because little U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funding is earmarked for transitional housing, Miller focuses her fundraising efforts on projects she believes to be more feasible for the Suffolk shelter, she said.

&uot;If something doesn’t fit into my budget,&uot; she added, &uot;I’m not going to work it.&uot;

Two years ago, Miller talked to representatives from a local church interested in building some transitional housing in Suffolk at cost.

Although those talks have fallen by the wayside, Miller thinks it could be time to rejuvenate them.