When you think about homelessness, it‘s easy to imagine an adult by themselves, sleeping on the streets perhaps with a substance use disorder. That may be the stereotype of the homeless but it’s not how Thaler McCormick, CEO of ForKids, sees it. Through her eyes, homelessness is not a solitary existence.
“Family homelessness is the fastest-growing sector of the homeless population,” McCormick said. “What you need to picture typically, is a mom and a couple children. Usually at least one of those children is a baby, toddler or waddler.”
One of the driving factors for young families experiencing homelessness is the cost of childcare. If a parent is bringing in only around $1,200 a month and childcare costs anywhere from $400 to $800 a month, securing affordable and livable housing is not feasible. Families end up falling behind and through the gaps.
That’s where ForKids comes in.
How ForKids helps
ForKids is a nonprofit in Hampton Roads with a mission to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty for families and children. The 33-year-old organization has two main functions: residential services and operating the housing crisis hotline for 14 cities and counties, which it does in partnership with more than 400 partner organizations that assist families with guidance and resources.
The immediate reaction to the hotline calls is to quickly place families in a shelter as well as help with prevention, rental assistance or hotel assistance.
On the residential services side, ForKids also has a family shelter for long-term situations where families can stay for at least nine months while housing specialists try to help place them in homes across the region. During this period, clinical case managers help address holistic family issues, including the predicament that brought them to homelessness.
One of the main resources that sets ForKids apart is its educational programming. Once families are brought in through residential services, the kids are assessed and, if it’s determined that they are at least a year behind in school, ForKids provides a daily after-school program focusing on remediation. This isn’t afterschool homework help. It’s kids working with licensed educators and volunteers helping to close the achievement gap and build up their skills. On top of its afterschool remediation program, ForKids also transports kids to their original schools to maintain some continuity with their education.
ForKids touches the lives of thousands of families each year. About 600 families are served by the residential services program, while another 26,000 families are supported by the housing crisis hotline.
Education and COVID-19
When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, the ForKids team worried about its capacity to continue its work. It tried going remote for a couple of weeks but without the same impact. Once it changed its office environment, keeping employees in the office at a safe distance, it was able to regain its stride.
But then schools closed, and the risks and challenges to students grew exponentially.
“They don’t have internet access, they don’t have transportation,” McCormick said. “They lost a lot of their nutritional assistance. All the food backpacks they used to come home with just stopped.”
The first thing ForKids did during the pandemic was help with food assistance. ForKids educators worked with local restaurants and funders to help deliver more than 8,000 meals and food packs to families across the region.
Then came the next hurdle: remote learning and delivering school packets to the kids.
“We were two weeks into the school closure and not one of our children had their packets from school because they lacked transportation,” McCormick emphasized.
ForKids went to dozens of schools to pick up the packets and hand deliver them to children. From there, ForKids teams assisted with helping students get laptops which allowed the organization to set up virtual tutoring sessions.
In-person assistance was able to resume back in September with very limited students. Students could come in pods and sibling groups based on who their families were in contact with. The children who needed help the most were prioritized for in-person support.
But wait, there’s more…space
Throughout the pandemic, construction continued on The Landmark Center, a massive new facility that includes a large kitchen and dining hall, a family shelter and administrative offices for more than 100 employees. Located in the South Norfolk community in Chesapeake, The Landmark Center gives ForKids a more centralized location in the Tidewater region. Having opened this past April, kids are already enjoying the new high-tech STEM-maker spaces, art rooms and modern classrooms.
With sustainability and additional space in mind, the facility has 135 shelter beds compared to the previous center’s 38. There also are larger classroom areas to support up to 120 children (vs. 22 before) as well as space for service partners, a roof garden and an oversized kitchen that will be used to not only cook food but also to teach volunteers and serve meals from the rooftop garden. The Landmark Center has been designated an urban orchard as part of a Department of Forestry initiative.
“The embrace that we’ve received from the community of south Norfolk has been welcoming,” said McCormick. “Homeless programs across the country might have funding to build buildings but cannot get a site because of community opposition. What’s beautiful about The Landmark Center is how the community itself advocated for us to come to their community.”
With that advocacy came the promise of revitalization and over a hundred new jobs in the community.
It’s auction time!
ForKids’ biggest fundraiser of the year is coming up on June 5. The 20th annual event, Building a Brighter Future, will involve auctioning off artwork made my children in ForKids’ programs. It will take place in a hybrid format with board members and sponsors attending in person and the public tuning in virtually for free.