Still fighting homelessness

Published 11:01 pm Saturday, January 7, 2012

ForKids sees success in its changed Suffolk program

About six months after the ForKids organization announced a change in the way it provides services for the homeless in Suffolk and Western Tidewater, leaders say the program is working even better than they had expected.

“For the first time in three years, I really think we have our Western Tidewater programs headed in the right direction to meet the needs of this community,” said Thaler McCormick, chief executive officer of ForKids.

But, McCormick added, the organization still relies on support from the community and needs more donors and volunteers.

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The organization took over a struggling homeless shelter on Finney Avenue about three years ago. Last June, it announced it no longer would house families at the shelter and instead would provide support through homelessness prevention, emergency shelter in motels and services to enable families to obtain housing again more quickly.

McCormick said the prior model wasn’t sustainable and, furthermore, wasn’t working for much of their constituency.

“When families were homeless, they weren’t coming to the downtown shelter, because they didn’t want to relocate out of their communities,” she said.

Under the new model, homeless families can be put up in a motel on a temporary basis in their home community, whether that’s Suffolk, Franklin, Isle of Wight or Southampton County.

In addition, the new model includes more intensive case management to encourage families to move into their own housing more quickly.

Before, families could stay at the Suffolk House for up to four months, McCormick said. Now, they have only 30 days — imposed by new mandates tied to federal funding — in which to find their own housing and move out.

“This is a real challenge for ForKids,” McCormick said. “We have always felt it was important to allow enough time to give the families stability. But this is coming, and our funding is going to be contingent upon it.”

Families now will be required to recertify their eligibility for the motel assistance every four days and have certain tasks to complete during each interim.

“They’re talking to their case managers sometimes daily, so the families are very motivated and on the ball,” McCormick said.

She said the results have been a staggering improvement. During the first four months of this new program, 86 percent of families were placed in housing, almost double the number placed during the same four months last year.

However, one area where the organization has struggled with is finding permanent homes for families with disabilities. That’s why officials are working on plans to convert Suffolk House to permanent supportive housing for families struggling with disability.

But the ultimate goal, McCormick said, is to prevent families from becoming homeless in the first place. That’s why the new model also focuses on prevention through rent and utility assistance.

In addition, all families get after-care services, such as employment counseling, mental health services and children’s services for up to nine months to ensure stability.

“There are many elements that we weren’t able to provide when we were operating the shelter,” McCormick said. “It has more of a continuum of services than it did before.”

One extremely successful part of the program has been the Hot Meals and Homework initiative, which is run out of Suffolk House — where the Suffolk and Western Tidewater staff still work. Children are transported there after school once a week. They work with volunteer tutors and then are sent home with a nutritious, hot meal for their entire family.

McCormick added that all these programs take money, in-kind contributions and volunteers to run.

“We need the community to support this program, even though it’s a little harder to understand,” she said. “It’s really easy to understand the shelter, but this is much more effective to meet the needs of a community. We desperately need community support if it is to survive.”

For more information on ForKids or to donate, visit