‘Bridges to Independence’ helps homeless cross into new lives

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"This place is about people constantly moving forward as their hands pull others along - and then those people in turn are reaching out and lifting others up," said Kenisha Salvary, a single mother who was homeless for 10 years. "It's a ripple effect of hope."

Salvary, 25, was describing what was for 30 years known as the Arlington-Alexandria Coalition for the Homeless. This year, AACH hopes to extend that ripple outward even further with a new name, "Bridges to Independence" (b2i), and the promise of a new home.

AACH was created in 1985 by a group of citizens representing local faith communities to help families break the cycle of homelessness and transition into permanent housing. Gus Hall, director of Christ House in Alexandria for more than a decade, was a founding member.

The new name and larger facility will allow the nonprofit to better fulfill its mission, said Michael O'Rourke, the executive director and a parishioner of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Vienna. O'Rourke worked for 12 years for diocesan Catholic Charities before coming to AACH.

"'Bridges to Independence' more accurately reflects what we've always done: provide clients with bridges and help them cross them with the support that is needed - be it financial literacy, job skills or training to be a better parent," O'Rourke said. As b2i, the organization also plans to intensify its work to prevent at-risk families from becoming homeless.

This summer, the LifeWorks building, the current client services facility on North Highland Street in Arlington, will be torn down to make room for "10th Street Flats," a five-story, 150,000-square-foot, multiuse property by Clark Realty Capital. B2i will own the ground floor of the development, doubling its previous space for children and adult programs. Construction is expected to finish in fall 2017.

"We are tearing down to build up not just a building but the lives of (those) who have been, are and will be served by Bridges to Independence," said Rev. Rosemari Sullivan during her keynote talk at a farewell reception for the building April 28. Sullivan, an Episcopal priest, is an AACH founder and the namesake of its transitional shelter.

The reception, "A Proud Look Back, A Bridge to the Future," was held on the property of the soon-to-be demolished building and brought together founding members, past and present board members, supporters and former clients, including Salvary.

"Being homeless is a bit like being shot in the chest and running off of adrenaline," Salvary said following the keynote talk. After coming to the United States from Trinidad at 14, she had a troubled family life and spent years living alone behind bushes and eventually in her car.

"When you stop running and get help, it's like, 'Oh, I've been shot,'" she said. And it's then that you realize that you not only need help but also healing.

"AACH provided that," said Salvary.

B2i's two main programs are its transitional shelter and Adopt-A-Family. The shelter, Sullivan House, is an apartment-like facility where clients reside for three to five months while receiving counseling and referral services.

Adopt-A-Family is a rent subsidy program funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Arlington County. The typical client is a single mother with two kids, and children account for 60 percent of clients.

Catholic Charities' St. Margaret of Cortona Transitional Residences in Woodbridge also offers a transitional housing program, providing apartments and support to homeless families for one to two years.

Following graduation from b2i, many graduates return to volunteer. They help at the front desk or with child care, "or just wherever is needed," said O'Rourke.

B2i's newest programs include a Youth Leadership Academy, which is partnering with the Smithsonian Institution to offer internships and job-shadowing opportunities for high schoolers, and a microbusiness program that teaches the practical side of starting a business.

During the two-year construction period, programs will be held in Sullivan House. It is a bit cramped, but local churches, including St. Charles Borromeo in Arlington, have offered to house some activities.

"We couldn't do this without the faith communities," said O'Rourke, adding that he hopes the clients will barely notice a change in services during "the organizational turmoil."

Given its record, the organization has what it takes to flourish during the transition: About 85 percent of graduates do not return to homelessness.

Salvary graduated from Adopt-A-Family a year ago and is living independently with her 7-year-old son.

"Before I came to Bridges, in the back of my mind I wondered if my son would be better off without me, if my homelessness was ever going to end," Salvary said. Now she works full time as a HUD program assistant while taking a full course load at Northern Virginia Community College. She also recently was named Ms. Trinidad and Tobago in the service-based United Nations Pageant.

This summer she'll compete in the global pageant, where she wants to focus attention on homelessness. Her goal, she said, smiling and looking at her son, is to share her story and "all the hope I've been given."

How to help

To donate to Bridges to Independence or to volunteer, go here.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015