The reactive approach to homelessness isn’t working. For Thrive, an Arlington-based nonprofit that provides financial assistance to local citizens in need, the aim is to end homelessness by keeping it from happening in the first place. The goal is to provide emergency funds to help a family through a crisis that might otherwise ruin their lives.
In past years, one of Thrive’s biggest contributors and partners was the Federal National Mortgage Association, or Fannie Mae. This year, however, Fannie Mae announced that it was eliminating its “Help the Homeless” program. Without this major supporter, Thrive has had to find new ways to bring the community together to keep the program alive. This year’s focus is its “2014 Challenge Campaign.”
“We have some donors who are particularly generous and they put together $100,000,” said Geraldine Shannon, executive director of Thrive. “If we can raise $100,000 [in donations], they will match.”
This has not been a problem in years past. This past year, individuals contributed $386,000, over 30 percent of Thrive’s income. However, much of this was from unexpected large scale donations that Thrive can’t expect to rely on this year.
Thrive’s biggest strength is being able to turn around same day payment to people in need. In an emergency situation, sometimes people can’t afford to wait for payments to process and work through the red tape of other organizations.
“People get a shut off notice from Dominion Power or they get an eviction notice from their landlord, we can have that payment ready,” said Shannon. “The checks are always made out to the creditor, ready on the same day.”
Shannon says Thrive is very careful with their donations and have a system in place to avoid scams and people becoming reliant on the organization.
“We do not take self-referrals,” said Shannon, “we feel that is a good way to make sure we are meeting true need.”
Thrive relies on the assessments of Arlington County social workers to determine “true need” — where someone is in a financial crisis and requires emergency assistance. Any request for assistance must come from a local social worker or case worker.
Of Thrive’s million dollar budget, $822,000 went directly into donations. While Shannon and her staff are paid, by relying on the county for the casework they have been able to limit their size to four employees, two of whom are part time. This allows 88 percent of their funding to go directly into emergency financial aid; 63 percent of Thrive’s donations, $520,000, goes into rental assistance.
“Rent here is high, so the highest proportion of assistance we do provide is rent,” said Shannon. “Research has found that national research has found that it is less expensive to help an individual or family stay in their home than to wait until they are homeless and deal with the problems then.”
For Kurt Larrick, the communications manager for Arlington County’s Department of Human Resources, this was the biggest benefit from Thrive.
“[Thrive] is a critical part of our community safety net,” said Larrick. “The best way to prevent homelessness in our community is to prevent it from happening. They provide emergency funding that prevents individuals and families from dropping into homeless. It is so much more effective to help people if we get to them at that point.”
Shannon emphasized that for many of their programs, they will only pay a recurring bill twice a year.
“A big way to prevent homelessness is to help people stay in the homes they have, but that doesn’t mean we’re paying their rent month after month,” said Shannon. “It’s emergency assistance. We will only help a household twice a year with rent.”
The organization has had to deny applicants on similar grounds before. Shannon told the story of young man who got a new apartment and three months into his lease realized that he couldn’t continue paying rent. The social worker assisting Thrive told him that he needed to get a roommate, a better paying job, or a less expensive apartment.
“Helping him once wasn’t going to really help him because next month he’d have the same problem,” said Shannon.
The organization has been around for 39 years. Wilma LaMee has been volunteering at Thrive for many of those and says that while the technology has advanced, much of the details of their work have remained the same. She enjoys her work there, saying she wouldn’t have kept doing it if she didn’t.
“It makes me feel like I’m giving back a little in retirement,” said LaMee.