My earliest memories are of life in India in the 1980’s. In Ahmedabad, Gujarat all walks of life live together in very dense concentrations. The extraordinarily wealthy and the extremely poor and homeless all share the same walkways, parks, and public spaces. I grew up wondering how it was possible for me to get meals and water anytime I wanted, while other children my age were clearly unable to meet their daily needs. When I turned eight, my parents moved us to the United States. Initially I was mesmerized by the relative cleanliness, calm, quiet, and peaceful order that life seemed to operate under. Living in the suburbs of Richmond, VA also gave me the impression that in the United States, the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth, everyone could live comfortably and did not have to worry about the bigger woes of life, like homelessness. I was wrong.
My teenage and college years would bring me into the city more often for trips to museums, seeing a symphony on a field trip, and beginning to play music with my friends in small venues downtown. This is when I was able to see the reality; the fact that not only did we have homelessness here but it was not a concern to most people I knew. Life in the suburbs created a sort of bubble mentality. Since no one really ever saw homelessness in their cul de sac, it made one feel like homelessness did not even exist. However, this could not be further from the truth. While in college, I studied Urban Studies, and started to approach homelessness as an issue that we could address with the right minds working on the right projects, big and small.
Jolinda Underwood has been working at HomeAgain for a decade now. For years, I’ve been working with Underwood, putting on annual events at Gallery5 to bring awareness to the work HomeAgain is doing and raise some funds along the way. A little over a decade ago, the Richmond area had thousands of homeless individuals. Now, thanks to the work of Underwood and others, our homeless population is under 900. And with our collective help, it will continue to get smaller.
Underwood told me about how they try to approach the turnaround from homelessness to a permanent stable living situation. “The goal is 30 days,” she said. “We want rapid exits from the shelter to permanent housing.”
“Housing is a right,” she continued. “Whether you are in recovery, whether you have mental health diagnosis, whether you have income or not, there are still ways that we can work with you.”
HomeAgain’s staff works 24 hours a day to address the needs of our homeless, regardless of their situation. Women escaping abusive relationships, single fathers and mothers down on their luck, veterans, and individuals with mental health or addiction issues are all able to take advantage of this shelter-to-permanent-housing trajectory that HomeAgain gracefully provides to all of the folks that walk through their doors. The goal is to not only end homelessness by taking people off the street, but to also prevent homelessness for people that are at risk of ending up on the streets. This requires a lot of energy and work, but luckily for our city we have individuals like Underwood and her colleagues at HomeAgain to work on this huge mission which will ultimately benefit the entire community.
Underwood recalled one of the more difficult times in her career, when she was working with a young pregnant woman on the autism spectrum. The woman was not able to take her medication due to the complications it would bring to the pregnancy. She and her on-and-off boyfriend were living in a small tent behind a building near the HomeAgain offices. “I’ve been in this field for a long time, and that was the first time I got really choked up,” Underwood said. “To see all their belongings, food, and whatnot was outside a tent, and it had rained the night before.” This is just one of the complicated scenarios that has played out in front of Underwood’s eyes in her decade-long mission to fight homelessness.
“I had to work with a family that was living in their car for two months,” she said. “They were scared; they could not tell anyone they were living in a car. You can’t get a job, and you can’t tell anyone about it, because your children will get taken away. Their son was in high school. It’s tough.”
After a decade in the industry, Underwood has seen homeless families transition from stressful, unstable daily living situations to becoming homeowners with stability and a chance to move forward in life. But the work continues regardless. Families move into the HomeAgain network all the time, and our Richmond community can help make their lives a little easier by providing daily needs such as beds, sofas, food, and children’s educational and recreational items. The organization could benefit from fridges, vehicles, bus tickets, and obviously more funding.
“The goal is housing, but that’s not all we do,” she said. “There’s more to a person then just getting them connected to a house.” Education, employment, health services, and community interactions are vital components of life for each and every person in our city. Underwood’s team at HomeAgain is working towards bringing hope to those that may not think hope is possible. That hope will be made more potent and powerful if more individuals are aware of the many ways they can contribute to this greater issue.
I’m thrilled to be a part of an event that will be raising funds for HomeAgain this Saturday at Gallery 5. We’ll have a lot of Richmond’s best musicians, including members of Sleepwalkers, The Trillions, Horsehead, and more, on hand to ring in the holidays with some Christmas songs and fun covers. The money from the door will go to HomeAgain. This is a great chance for the Richmond community to meet the staff, as they will be at the event to let folks know about how we can get involved. And you’ll get to enjoy some music along the way, too.