Songs for the Homeless

Songs for the Homeless

Falls Church-based group helps turn homeless families into homeowners.

Homelessness can happen anywhere. One local organization wants not only to make it clear that Fairfax County is not immune but to help those in need become self-sufficient.

Homestretch Inc. is a nonprofit organization that provides “transitional housing, between shelters and permanent homes,” said Nancy Taxson, executive director for the group.

“We work in 12 different areas of a family’s life, and the goal is for them to be fully self-sufficient within two years.”

Currently, Homestretch is working with 64 families to get them back on their feet.

“Our goal is to break the cycle of violence and poverty and substance abuse,” Taxson said. “We do a lot with employment training. We have a lot of programs for children. We offer English-language training."

Clients are also required to work or be in school for 40 hours a week, she added.

Homestretch offers services to help people become more responsible with their finances so they can be better prepared to care for themselves when leaving the program.

“We’re helping people control their money. We open a savings account in their name for them,” Taxson said. Last year, clients saved $80,000 in accounts and paid off over $70,000 in personal debt with the help of a certified public accountant employed by Homestretch.

After two years in the program, Homestretch helps the clients move out of the program and into their lives.

“Ten members of last year’s class are becoming homeowners this year,” she said.

OFFERING HOUSING, educational and personal services to over 230 children and adults has its price tag.

“It costs about $1.5 million a year for our program,” Taxson said. “Half of that comes from the state of Virginia, Fairfax County, H.U.D., Falls Church, things like that,” she said. “The rest of it comes from individuals, corporations, churches, foundations, civic organizations, any place we can get it.”

Last Sunday afternoon, Homestretch conducted its fall fund-raiser, a jazz benefit concert at Jammin’ Java in Vienna.

Singer Ericka Ovette, friend of board member John Dupogny, performed a medley of jazz songs by such female artists as Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Carmen McCrae and Billy Holiday. She was joined on stage by Paul Pieper on guitar for their two-hour set.

“She’s got such a great voice,” said Alvah Beander of Ovette. Beander has worked with Homestretch for several years through a contract with the Fairfax County Public Schools that placed her in four homeless shelters each month teaching time-management skills.

“What I liked about Homestretch the most was that they give people two years to be self-sufficient, and they work very diligently with their clients,” Beander said. Most shelters try to turn people around in a matter of three or four months, she added.

According to Beander, the change that Homestretch makes in its clients' lives is remarkable. “I ran into a former client in a grocery store one time, and I didn’t recognize her," she said. "She totally changed her life.”

Beander has taught people some very basic skills in the shelters. “I had to teach them how to figure out when to get up to get their kids ready for school,” she said. “I literally had to take a clock and help them figure it out.

“A lot of people in the program didn’t have a family growing up, so they don’t know family roles and responsibilities,” she said. “I’ve been humbled by this experience. It really opens your eyes.”

Board member Tim McGough, while addressing the approximately 75 people at Jammin' Java, said, “There are 60 families that wouldn’t have a roof over their heads if it weren’t for Homestretch. They’re learning to be self-sufficient, and after two years, these people go on to be really successful in taking care of themselves.”

“I’m not aware of any other homeless programs anywhere near this successful,” McGough said. “Eighty-five percent of families that go through the program are successful in getting off public assistance for housing costs. It’s incredible."

McGough pointed to the system Homestretch uses to teach, train and care for its clients as part of the program's success.

“There’s a formula that goes with it. It’s about helping people, but holding them accountable for their actions,” he said. “There’s a lot of tough love. One without the other just doesn’t work.”

JoAnn Murchison, director of corporate relations, said she hopes that through fund-raisers, mailings and other ventures, more people will want to help Homestretch help others.

“Something that I think would surprise most people is that the average age of a homeless person is 9 years old,” she said.

Another reason people don’t realize the severity of the problem is that the area seems untouched by poverty.

“The economy around here makes it difficult for those who can’t afford to live,” she said. “But you’d never guess it to look around.”

Murchison hopes that as word spreads about Homestretch, more specific programs can be developed “to help address specific family types, like homeless women