Shortly after Thaler McCormick went to work at ForKids—an organization that provides a variety of support services for homeless individuals and families—she sat down to interview one of her first clients, a woman named Carla.* (*Some of the names in this story have been changed to protect identities.)
“I asked her what her goals were,” McCormick recalls. “I remember her taking a few moments to think about it. Then she said, ‘I just want to be happy. I want to laugh.’ I was deeply touched—and I wanted to help Carla be able to laugh again.”
That was 23 years ago. A few years later McCormick took over as executive director, and since then, she and her staff have helped thousands of people like Carla. Now, thanks to a successful capital campaign and enthusiastic support from the community of South Norfolk in Chesapeake, the organization is looking forward to a new chapter in its history, with plans underway to build an expansive new headquarters that will house a shelter, dining hall, education center and offices. (See below.)
Meanwhile, at its current headquarters on Colley Avenue in Norfolk, the work goes on.
A crucial part of that work is the management of the Regional Housing Crisis Hotline, which serves as a gateway not only to ForKids but also to dozens of other charitable organizations in 14 cities throughout the region. Last year, case managers manning the phones fielded more than 45,000 calls.
When I stopped by for a visit at 10 a.m. on the morning after Memorial Day, 75 people had already called seeking help.
Given the extent of homelessness in the United States, these numbers are not surprising. On a single night in 2018, according to an annual survey conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than half a million people were experiencing homelessness—552,830, to be exact. Approximately 6,000 of those individuals were in Virginia.
That number, however, does not reflect the full extent of the problem. For one thing, it doesn’t count the people who are living temporarily with family members or friends but are homeless for all intents and purposes. Moreover, it doesn’t count the people who are living right on the edge—one setback away from homelessness.
“That’s what I think many people don’t understand,” McCormick says. “How much the working poor are living right on the margin. It’s very easy to slide back out of housing again.”
Seconds after I sat down with a case manager, one such individual called from Newport News—a 40-year-old Army veteran who lost his job on May 12 and was seeking financial assistance to tide him over.
“I’m looking for work,” he said, “but I don’t think I’ll have anything before my June rent comes due.”
The case manager referred him to several organizations that he could contact for potential help.
From there, the calls grew more urgent.
A minute later, another veteran named Arthur* called from the Crisis Stabilization Center in Hampton, an in-patient psychiatric facility designed to help individuals in extreme emotional distress.
Arthur had been living on the streets in Virginia Beach for two weeks prior to checking himself into the program, after losing his job and getting evicted from his apartment.
“Is there anyone you can stay with after you leave the crisis center?” the case manager asked.
“Maybe my mom,” he said, “but only for like a day or two.”
After asking a few more questions, the case manager gave him the number of the Peninsula Rescue Mission, which serves veterans, among others.
The next call was from a 45-year-old woman named Lana* who told the case manager that she had secured a Section 8 housing voucher and had found an apartment but lacked the money for a security deposit. (The term “Section 8” refers to the section of the Housing Act of 1937, which authorizes rental assistance for low-income families.)
She was currently living in another apartment, but the lease was due to expire on May 31, without an opportunity for renewal.
“I have two children that have disabilities, and I have a disability also,” Lana told the case manager.
Alas, after searching the hotline database, the case manager came up empty.
“It looks like right now we don’t have any resources for deposit assistance,” she said. I’d recommend contacting local churches.”
“I did that last week,” Lana said. “I did all my research, and I’ve contacted everybody I can think of. Where are we going to stay? There’s nowhere to go,” she added, her voice beginning to shake.
The case manager gently told Lana there wasn’t anything more she could do at this point but that she should call back on the 31st if she needed assistance finding temporary shelter.
Lana’s call underscored a harsh reality: Although ForKids and many other organizations work tirelessly to help people in need, there simply aren’t enough resources to help everyone. Compounding the problem is that eligibility for support services varies widely from city to city and person to person, depending on individual circumstances.
“The problem is enormously complex,” McCormick says. “Gaining eligibility for services is like putting a camel through the eye of a needle.”
The roots of the problem are equally complex.
One of the main causes is the lack of affordable housing, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
“The nation is currently facing one of the most severe affordable housing crises in history,” states the organization’s website.
McCormick agrees—and she notes that the children of homeless families are the most vulnerable.
“We as a nation have not addressed the need for a housing stock that matches our workforce,” she says. “Housing is as much a part of our infrastructure as our roads are. That fundamentally impacts the overall wellbeing of our nation. If we don’t house our nation’s children safely, we have lost this resource,” she adds, noting that the traumatic instability that homeless children experience threatens both their physical and mental health. Their struggles, in turn, affect other children in the classroom, not to mention society in the long-term if they don’t gain the skills necessary to live productive and independent lives.
“We need to look at this not only as a matter of compassion but through a deeply practical lens. It’s as much a national security issue as having a strong military is.”
The nation’s mental health crisis is another contributing factor—along with a problem that’s often associated with it: domestic violence.
Tasha Wagner’s story is a case in point.
Tasha Wagner. Photo by Angela Douglas
When I met with her at the ForKids offices, I was struck by her bright smile and easy laugh, not to mention her poise and professional demeanor. Nothing about her suggested that she’d been through hell and back.
The 30-year-old mother of two was born in the Fiji Islands but was adopted by a family in North Carolina at the age of 2.
“That didn’t work out because they were abusive,” she said, “so I was placed in foster care. After about a year another family adopted me, but they turned out to be abusive as well. After that I bounced around between various group homes and shelters.”
At the age of 15, she was placed with another foster family that finally gave her some sense of stability. But two years later, she began dating someone and looked forward to a time when she could start life on her own.
“I thought I was madly in love with him,” she said, “and when I turned 19, I signed myself out of the foster care system.”
A few years later, they got married and Wagner gave birth to a daughter.
“I thought I was going to be with him forever,” she said. “But then he got abusive—and finally, after a domestic altercation, I lost custody of my daughter.” The father did as well, she added; their daughter was placed with his parents.
“I was so wrapped up in him that you could say I chose him over my daughter,” she recalled ruefully. “I regret that.”
In 2016, Wagner got pregnant again, by another man, this time with a son, but that relationship didn’t work out either. Now, however, Wagner was determined to put her child’s welfare first.
“I had to step out on faith that my son and I were going to be OK,” she said.
The struggle was all the more difficult because Wagner had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder—an affliction that made it hard for her to hold down a job.
Finally, though, she found help at the Suffolk facility of the Children’s Center of Western Tidewater, where a staff member, in turn, connected her with ForKids.
“If it wasn’t for them,” she said, “I don’t know what we would have done.”
Tasha Wagner with her case manager Lisa Ellsworth. Photo by Angela Douglas
Sitting with us as we talked was Lisa Ellsworth, a senior family case manager who has guided Wagner through the process of getting back on her feet.
“When Tasha came to us, she was taking mandated parenting classes through the children’s center. She was very close to losing custody, not just because of her instability but because of her mental health issues and because she had tried to reconcile with her husband who also has mental health problems. But she was determined.
“Tasha began seeing a therapist and taking medication,” Ellsworth said. “Now she’s doing great. Not only was she able to get public housing, but she’s working with a job coach, she’s been medication compliant for over two years, and she’s serving as a parent advocate through the Children’s Center. So she went from almost losing custody of her own child to now representing other parents in the community. She really has done an amazing amount of work in a short period of time.”
Wagner is also determined to be a good mother to her daughter, who is now 8. Without an attorney, she went to court to file for visitation rights, armed with records of all the classes she’d been attending and commendations from various people who have worked with her. Impressed, the judge granted her visitations every other weekend, for now.
In preparation for those visits, Wagner plans a variety of activities for them to do together, from baking cupcakes and doing arts and crafts projects to watching movies.
She couldn’t have accomplished any of this, she said, without ForKids.
“They’ve been my angel through it all,” she said. “I feel like God sent them to me just when I needed them most.”
Wagner’s long-term goal is to go back to school, although she’s not sure at this point what she wants to study.
“I know that I want to do something that will help me help families who have been through what I have,” she said. “I feel like that’s my calling.”
Wagner’s smile reminded me of the story McCormick had told me about that early interview with her client Carla, so I circled back to ask what had become of her.
“That was a difficult case,” McCormick says, “and it’s been a long time, but I still follow her progress on Facebook. I was thrilled to discover recently that her daughter is now going to nursing school.”
McCormick acknowledges that she has no way of knowing what would have happened if Carla hadn’t found ForKids. But she knows that the ForKids’ programs have an invaluable impact on the lives of children in the families that find both shelter and guidance through the organization.
William White. Photo by Tom Robotham
It made an enormous difference for William White, a 26-year-old Norfolk resident who works in the call center.
White’s childhood was anything but stable. When he and his two siblings were young children, his mother suffered from drug abuse and various physical ailments.
“We’d been living with my uncle,” he recalls, “but when I was 8, he died, and we were locked out of the apartment because my mom was not on the lease. After that we moved around, staying with other family members and friends, but none of those situations worked out, so we ended up staying on the beach in Ocean View for a few nights. We had a bag of clothes and one blanket.
“Eventually, my mom went to Child Protective Services and told them she wanted to give us up because she didn’t want us to have to live like that anymore.”
Fortunately, the caseworker put them in touch with ForKids, and they were placed in a shelter for 60 days. Subsequently, the organization was able to help White’s mother get Supplemental Security Income (SSI), because of her disabilities, and find a subsidized apartment.
“Our lives became more stable for a few years after that, but when I was 13, she was not able to cope. She fell behind on the bills, and we became homeless again. I was in the eighth grade at the time, and I remember coming home on the school bus and seeing all of our things outside. It was just a terrible sight, seeing all of our clothes and our furniture just sitting there outside the apartment. I cried like a baby. I remember thinking, here I am about to go to high school, and I’ll be homeless and won’t have any friends.”
White’s mother contacted ForKids again, and the staff sprang into action, picking up the family’s possessions, placing them in a shelter once again, and then, eventually, finding permanent housing for them.
The renewed sense of stability allowed White to finish school, get into Norfolk State, secure his own job at a fast-food restaurant, get a car and move into on-campus housing. Eventually, he found a better job with Verizon Wireless, but the challenge of his schedule became too much, and he dropped out of college.
Subsequently, he was laid off after Verizon eliminated his position.
“I remember one day sharing that news with Thaler, and she encouraged me to apply for a job in the hotline call center. The supervisor liked me, and the rest is history.”
Having found secure employment once again, White re-enrolled in Norfolk State, and he is due to graduate at the end of the fall semester with a degree in social work. After that, he plans to pursue his master’s degree.
“It’s been very encouraging to help people who are in the same situation I was in. On a daily basis we talk to mothers and fathers who have to stay outside with their children, or in their cars, because they have nowhere to go. I don’t get sad for them, though. I’m happy that they’ve been able to talk to us. For me, it’s just pure joy that I’m able to encourage somebody else. I try to reassure them, ‘Your hard times will be over soon; just keep your head up and stay positive.”
How One Community Embraced ForKids
For nearly 20 years, ForKids has pursued its mission of helping homeless families at its modest facility on Colley Avenue in Norfolk. But executive director Thaler McCormick and her staff have long realized they needed more space if they were going to continue to grow.
Two years ago, they found the perfect location—a property in the South Norfolk section of Chesapeake, just minutes by car from Downtown Norfolk.
The story of how this came to be is nearly as inspiring as the stories of families who have lifted themselves out of homelessness with the organization’s aid.
Facilities that serve the homeless, needless to say, are not always welcome by residents of a community. With that in mind McCormick threw herself into preparation for a campaign to persuade the residents of South Norfolk that the new facility would actually be a plus for the community—in part because it would bring about 100 professional employees there.
She began by approaching the deputy city manager, whom she’d known for years, and received a positive initial response. But she was told that she’d have to sell the idea to the community. As a first step, she began inviting members of the South Norfolk Civic League to tour the current facility and see for themselves what the organization does.
Initially, she recalls, some of the members had reservations, but in time they became champions of the project. When it came time for the civic league vote, the members not only approved it but voiced enthusiastic support. When all was said and done, someone in the back of the room stood up and said, “Welcome home!”
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” McCormick recalls with emotion in her voice.
That, however, was only the first hurdle. The organization also needed approval of the city council, since ForKids was seeking to purchase the property from the city and was pitching the idea that the city pay for a stormwater system and parking.
“I showed up prepared to give a speech,” McCormick recalls, “but the mayor at the time, Alan Krasnoff, said my comments wouldn’t be necessary. Instead he called on members of the community, and one after another they gave the most beautiful speeches, talking about how ForKids would improve the welfare of the community. It was as if they were giving the speeches that we had prepared, but in their own words.”
Finally, it was time for the council vote, which in Chesapeake is done with lights in front of each member—red for “no,” green for “yes.”
“One, by one,” she said, “We saw seven green lights.”
The new 60,000-square-foot facility, scheduled to break ground soon, will include an education center three times the size of the one in the current location, with five classrooms, four tutoring rooms and a capacity to serve up to 120 children.
It will also include an onsite shelter space, with 96 beds for short-term stays, a 75-seat dining space and adjoining kitchen, a rooftop garden and a vastly expanded area for the Housing Crisis Hotline, as well as administrative offices.
To enhance the setting, the city is making improvements to the public park immediately behind the site of the new building. Take one look at the architectural renderings, and it will immediately become clear why enthusiasm among the civic league spread so quickly.
Indeed, it’s hard to think of a more fitting location for an organization that serves people who have fallen into the margins of society. The sentiment about the new project was summed up in an article in The Virginian-Pilot that quoted, among other people, Joe Josue, a local business owner. The residents of South Norfolk, he said, want a vibrant community.
“It was at one time,” he told the Pilot, “and it can be that way again.”