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Conquering Homelessness With Adopt-A-Family

Holding back tears, Yolanda Dodson resolutely declared, "I may be down for a little, but I will get back up."

She had just related a heart-wrenching account of her fight against homelessness and financial trouble. As soon as she finished, Andrea Campbell took the stage and told an equally emotional tale of her struggle against substance and domestic abuse.

THE TWO women told stories of overcoming countless obstacles — from debt to abuse and how they were able to pull themselves out of homelessness and into self-sufficiency.

They gave their personal testimonies last Friday, June 9, during graduation day for the Adopt-A-Family Program, which is run by the Arlington-Alexandria Coalition for the Homeless. The ceremony is an annual event, held at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. It marks the time when the families in the program have successfully reached their goals, financial, educational, or otherwise, and are ready to move on.

The keynote speaker, Donald Whitehead, is the current Transitional Program Director for Alexandria's Carpenter's Shelter. For some time now, he has been one of the country's foremost advocates against homelessness in the favor of affordable housing.

"Homelessness continues to grow unabated. Families are now the largest growing sector of homeless," he said.

After listing a few statistics, he focused on the story of an individual who frequently went back and forth between homelessness and financial success. He revealed that the person was, in fact, himself. "I talk in third person because I come up here in a suit, and people don't realize that I was once invisible," he said.

Alluding to the poet Langston Hughes, Whitehead said, "Homelessness is typically a series of 'dreams deferred.'" With that in mind, the Adopt-A-Family program does not only try to temporarily remedy the problem with shelters, but tries to get clients back on track to realizing their dreams. Case managers work directly with clients to train them with financial discipline until they can achieve permanent housing.

MANY OF the families in the program are, as Whitehead put it, "not homeless in the traditional sense." They might be living with a friend or family member temporarily. They might be in a shelter, between different transitory housing situations, or even at risk of eviction. If a family is not able to secure stable housing, they are eligible for the program.

"Usually clients are referred to us by another emergency shelter," said Sarena Wallock Bonora, director of Volunteers and Community Outreach. "Most of these clients are single women and children."

With an emphasis on family, about two-thirds of the clientele in the program are children. The AACH aims to both guarantee education and proper care of the children, and to encourage strong parenting skills with their mothers.

The event also hosted a number of community officials. Bill Euille, mayor of the City of Alexandria, stressed the necessity of groups such as the AACH: "We rely on nonprofits to pick up the pieces where the government cannot fill the void," he said.

Marsha Allegier, Arlington Deputy County Manager, helped present the graduates from Arlington with their awards.

The Arlington-Alexandria Coalition for the Homeless was started by church groups and the local government in 1985. Though it began as just a small shelter, the AACH has grown to include counseling programs, focused case management, and a much larger shelter called the Sullivan House.

While the AACH receives the majority of its funding from the state government and the United Way, private donations and fund-raisers are necessary to keep the programs and shelter running. One of these upcoming fund-raisers is a Kickball Tournament, which is scheduled for Aug. 12 at Barcroft Park in Alexandria. E-mail AACHKickball@gmail.com for details.