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'Everyday I Give Thanks to God'

This Thanksgiving, Valeria Underwood-Howze is most thankful that her family is no longer homeless or facing addiction.

In Valeria Underwood-Howze's new home, almost every piece of furniture, every toy, every kitchen appliance and every household good was either donated to her family or found in the trash.

"Everything in here I either found or someone gave to me," she said, sitting in her new home's living room, surrounded by boxes waiting to be unpacked. "I really do have a lot to be thankful for. This house. My children. I have so much to be thankful for. Everyday I give thanks to God."

This week, Underwood-Howze and her four children will celebrate their first Thanksgiving with their own roof over their heads. And it will be among the first Thanksgivings since her family seems to have finally put homelessness, drug addiction and alcoholism fully in the past.

"For so long, I kept praying to God, asking Him to just help me," she said, as her son, Jordan, 3, climbed on top of her, playing a Spider-Man video game she found for him in a Reston trash can. "And the way He answered my prayers was 10 times better than I ever could have imagined."

THREE YEARS AGO, Underwood-Howze was an alcoholic, pregnant with her third unplanned child, living in a tent at Lake Fairfax and married to a drug addict.

And just when it seemed her family's bleak outlook could not get any worse, her husband was arrested and incarcerated at the Adult Detention Center in Fairfax.

"It was a mad stressful time," Underwood-Howze said recently, sitting on a donated sofa at her house, located in an affordable housing development near Springfield. "I realized I had to turn my life around."

So she and her children moved into the Embry Rucker Community Shelter in Reston.

During the family's five-month stay at the homeless shelter, her children would spend their days at the Lauren Learning Center, a daycare service for local low-income residents. Both the shelter and the daycare center are run by Reston Interfaith, a non-profit service organization.

Meanwhile, at the urging of her counselor, Underwood-Howze started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. After her first few meetings, she began to realize that she needed to quit drinking and smoking altogether.

"At first I was like, I'm no alcoholic," she said. "But then I started hearing things from the other people in AA that sounded familiar. That empowered me to quit. And three years later, I haven't had one cigarette or a drink. There's nobody I can attribute that to but God."

AS THE FAMILY'S life was gradually pieced back together at the Embry Rucker shelter, Underwood-Howze applied to enter Reston Interfaith's transitional housing program.

Soon the family moved into one of Reston Interfaith's affordable housing apartments at Fairway Apartments in Reston.

In addition to the housing, Reston Interfaith provided her with a van and paid for her tuition and books at Northern Virginia Community College, where she earned an associate's degree in nursing.

Her husband was released from jail and stayed with the family long enough for Underwood-Howze to become impregnated with their fourth child, but after he relapsed and went back to drugs, she decided they needed to separate permanently.

"There's no guarantees in life and there's especially no guarantees with alcoholics or addicts," she said.

The family lived in the Fairway apartment for a little over two years, waiting for their federally-subsidized housing voucher was processed. Last May, Underwood-Howze received a Section 8 housing voucher and moved her family into their new home last month.

Thanks to her nursing degree, Underwood-Howze also found a job that pays enough for her to support her four children. She works as a nursing assistant in the neuroscience department at Inova Fairfax Hospital.

"Everyday I walk to work, and I can't believe I work there," she said. "A person who was living out of a tent. A person with four flippin' kids. I actually work here at this great hospital! I still can't believe it."

UNDERWOOD-HOWZE'S success story marked a high point in the three years Donita Williams has worked as a social worker for Reston Interfaith.

"I'm actually sad that I'm not working with her anymore," said Williams, who was Underwood-Howze's case manager for more than two years. "Valeria went above and beyond. She was just a great client. She was motivated. She wanted to make a better life for herself and her family, and she did it."

Williams and the other case managers at Reston Interfaith work with homeless and low-income people on an individual basis, helping them earn an education or job training, guiding them through drug and alcohol counseling and generally teaching them how they can pull themselves out of the cycle of poverty.

"We tell them you have to be in a better place in two years than you are now," Williams said. "Our ultimate goal is expand their education and expand their income."

UNFORTUNATELY, Underwood-Howze's success is more of an exception than the rule. Despite social service efforts by organizations like Reston Interfaith, the plight of Fairfax County's poor people is becoming worse.

More than 1,300 subsidized affordable housing units in the county have been lost over the last three years. Plus, the waiting list for a housing voucher has grown to at least nine months, and budget constraints have caused the program to be suspended altogether until the end of the year.

An estimated 2,000 families and individuals living in Fairfax County are homeless, while there are only 300 beds in five shelters.

"The bigger picture here is that we don't have enough facilities to handle the growing number of homeless people in the county," said Kerrie Wilson, Reston Interfaith's executive director.

But every so often, Wilson said, a client like Underwood-Howze comes along and proves that despite the myriad challenges, a person can emerge from poverty, homelessness and addiction.

"It's incredible," she said. "It truly moves you."