Little more than a month ago, Tenyca Windsor was sleeping in hotel doorways, on buses and in the bathroom of the fast food restaurant where she worked, and she was terrified that she would lose custody of her three young children. Now, she and her children live in a three-bedroom townhouse.
On its own, Windsor’s story would be a triumph. But it represents a much greater achievement: Hers is one of more than 500 Virginia families who went from homelessness to permanent housing in the past 100 days, thanks to a statewide housing push that national leaders are hailing as a model for lifting families out of homelessness.
Under the leadership of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 33 social service organizations in Virginia spent three years studying the best ways to end homelessness. Their research left them focused on rapid rehousing, a strategy of providing short-term rent subsidies in the belief that once a family has a roof over its heads, it can tackle the problems that led it to lose housing in the first place.
“Wouldn’t it be easier if you knew where you were going to be living, so you could get a job? If you knew where your kids were going to be in school, which bus you could take? You need the stability of housing,” said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
To culminate their three-year effort, the Virginia organizations declared a 100-day push to house as many families as possible. Last January, a one-night count found 984 homeless families in the state, and the organizations set the ambitious goal of housing 760 of them. Although they did not reach that number, they managed to house more than 500.
The organizations divided into seven groups that competed against each other to house the most families, and the group that included three Prince William County organizations — ACTS, Northern Virginia Family Service and Transitional Housing BARN — came out ahead when the challenge ended Friday. The six-member group collectively housed 125 families.
Windsor was one mother aided by Dumfries-based organization ACTS during the challenge. While she slept secretly in the bathroom of her workplace and worried about her children, who were staying with an ailing relative, she said, she spent about $400 on apartment application fees, trying to live anywhere in Prince William.
“I don’t even think there’s a place from Woodbridge to Dumfries to Triangle that I have not been to,” she said. All of the landlords turned her down because of poor credit.
ACTS employees persuade landlords to take on tenants such as Windsor. They assure landlords that the security deposit and at least one month’s rent will be paid by ACTS, and the tenants will receive a wide variety of services, including medical care, food pantry access, counseling, employment training and thrift store vouchers, long after the rent subsidies stop.
Rebekah McGee, deputy director of the organization, said that it would like to keep up the rapid rehousing efforts even though the 100-day challenge is over but that the plan depends on finding private donations. The organization has run through its government funding for rapid rehousing and will not receive more until July.
Each family costs the organization about $7,000, and McGee said that the strategy of short-term spending and long-term support works: Of 57 households that ACTS placed in housing from July 2012 through June, all are still housed, she said.
Windsor hopes to be one of those success stories. Her struggles are far from over; after she passed out at work recently, she learned that a health problem she faced more than a decade ago had resurfaced, and she is scheduled to undergo surgery this week. But she hopes to return to work soon, in time to start paying her rent when the ACTS subsidy tapers off next month.
“I want to have an ordinary life — go to work Monday to Friday, manage my money. Do something with the kids on Friday night and Saturday. Go to church on Sunday. Come home and make dinner,” she said. “I want an ordinary life. That’s all. And I’m fighting hard for it.”