Je’marc Morton and his daughter Aaliyah live in transitional housing provided by the “housing collaborative,” a partnership between local social service agencies and nonprofits that helps people avoid homelessness. (Virginia Gazette / December 31, 2013)
When you’re a convicted felon, Je’marc Morton says, you get used to missing out on good opportunities.
Morton speaks from experience. The 26-year-old was convicted in 2007 on charges of breaking and entering, grand larceny, and conspiracy. He served no jail time – the judge recognized him for good behavior following the incident and gave him five years of unsupervised probation.
Though Morton was fortunate he was left with a dilemma. He needed a place to live, but because of his criminal history, rental housing was nearly impossible to find.
“I was a convicted felon,” he said. “When people tell you good news, you’re so used to it being snatched up from under you.
“They say, ‘I didn’t know he had a background.’ There’s always a catch to it,” Morton added. He wound up living for four years with his pastor, Dale Hardy of God’s Temple in South Hill.
That’s when a partnership between several nonprofit organizations and local social service agencies came into play. Through that partnership, dubbed the “housing collaborative,” Morton was able to secure a transitional apartment for himself and his 5-year-old daughter Aaliyah, for which he pays a discounted rent for a certain length of time until he can find permanent housing.
The housing collaborative brings together United Way of Greater Williamsburg, St. Bede Catholic Church, Salvation Army, Avalon: A Center for Women and Children, and social service and housing agencies in the Historic Triangle. Nearly a year old, the collaborative meets monthly to help families and individuals overcome homelessness or the threat of homelessness, and get them on track toward self-sufficiency.
“I started losing hope. I started feeling like everything I was doing was pointless,” Morton said. “Even as you keep trying, no one’s really seeing the change, so what was the point? The housing collaborative touched me. My prayers were being heard.”
The collaborative’s mission “is about creating housing opportunities for lower-income families,” said Sharon Gibson-Ellis, executive director of the local United Way. “We have the key housing players at the table. We talk about creative ways to get people into housing. All the housing partners can put their assets in the center of the table. We can all share in the assets.”
Pete Walentisch, director of public housing and human services programs for the City of Williamsburg, said the various organizations all have complementary roles in the collaborative.
“That’s what makes sense,” he said, explaining that the collection of services that individuals and families receive is called a “wrap-around.” It could be emergency housing, temporary shelter, or rent or utility assistance. He said the problem of finding housing for the homeless is too expensive and labor-intensive a process for just one agency or organization to handle.
“You don’t solve the problem immediately,” Walentisch said. “You have to work together on who is providing what service at what point in time, and what does that wrap-around look like. We’re constantly assessing and reassessing a family’s needs as we move along with them. The ultimate goal is their self-sufficiency and permanent housing.”
He added that the United Way “deserves a lot of credit for taking the lead on this.”
Ken Drees, division manager of housing and neighborhood revitalization for YorkCounty, said York is able to provide Section 8 housing vouchers when available, and is able to “provide some housing rehabilitation and relief” based on local funding.
“We each have different services, we each have different programs,” Drees said. “Together, we can meet the needs of the people we come in touch with, despite the fact that one agency or jurisdiction may not be able to provide the services.”
Shannon D. Woloszynowski, director of social ministry and human concerns at St. Bede, said her church is able to provide emergency housing, which means a motel room for up to two weeks. In many cases St. Bede can also provide material assistance – help paying shut-off notices for electricity or water, or gasoline for people’s cars so they can get to work – “those things that might push them into homelessness,” Woloszynowski said. She also said, “we’re kind of polling our congregation” to see if any private landlords among its members would be willing to offer up any empty units to help those in need.
While being homeless in this area “looks different” than what you might see in other cities, Gibson-Ellis said, it’s still a serious problem.
“Homelessness in greater Williamsburg is not sleeping under the stars or sleeping in the woods,” she said. “Typically, family homelessness is hotel to hotel to hotel. Couch jumping with friends or family. Occasionally in the nicer months it will be a car or truck or U-Haul.”
Living a more stable life, Morton studies business administration at Rappahannock Community College and works for the United Way as a case advocate and re-entry specialist helping people who are in situations similar to his own. He said the housing opportunity he received from the collaborative will help him build up a relationship with a landlord so that he has a good reference when he applies for his own housing.
“The steps that have been taken with the housing collaborative have opened my mind,” he said. “It’s given me the opportunity to raise my daughter on my own. It’s been an excitement. My daughter’s prayer was for her own room with her own TV and a blue door. She doesn’t have the blue door yet, but she’s happy.”
Sampson can be reached at 757-345-2345.