Lynn Budnick, executive director of the women’s shelter ACCESS, tells the story of a woman who lost her home when her husband left her. She discovered he hadn’t paid the rent in months, and was evicted. She couldn’t afford housing despite a job working at a major corporation, so she lived in her car. With nowhere else to go, she went to ACCESS, which helped her find a home. She offered to tell her story in one of the nonprofit’s videos.
“We have an annual breakfast and people from that corporation were there,” says Budnick. “She was on that video, and when they saw her, they gasped. They couldn’t believe what she had just been through.”
That’s the biggest challenge Budnick and ACCESS face: proving that homelessness can be circumstantial and that it can happen to anyone.
ACCESS has been providing for homeless mothers and their families in the community for more than 30 years. When it opened, most of the organization’s clients just needed a place to stabilize and get their life back together. There were jobs available — receptionist and secretary positions that required minimal skills and could absorb someone into the workforce quickly. There was also subsidized housing available.
“That has changed in the last 15 years,” Budnick says. “Now, there’s very limited housing that is subsidized. It’s about a six-month wait to get on the list. More importantly, jobs are not available. Very few jobs in the fast food industry, that kind of thing, are available. Manufacturing is gone. So we have had to change, and that’s why we have begun this empowerment process to get our ladies able to get on their feet, but also be productive, wage-earning and strong moms in most cases.”
When people come to ACCESS they’re in a crisis mindset, so newcomers get a 48-hour period in which to get settled. Then a case manager will meet with each client and identify the obstacles the woman or family must overcome to get housing.
“It could be a Dominion bill, it could be an eviction,” Budnick says. “More often than not, it’s much more complex. There are mental health issues. There are education issues. Fifty percent of my ladies do not have a high school diploma. Seventy percent of my ladies are challenged with some mental health issue. It could be as simple as anxiety or depression, or as complicated as schizophrenia. Eighty percent also have an addiction issue.”
The organization provides job readiness training, financial literacy, grief counseling and addresses self-esteem issues and decision-making. Ultimately, Budnick says ACCESS is trying to convince clients that they can control their destiny.
“Every one of my clients, when you ask, ‘What did you dream about being when you were a child?’ have the same answers that anyone else in the country has: ‘I want to be a model, I want to be a teacher, I want to be a nurse, I want to be an astronaut,’” she says. “But somehow their lives got off track. What we’re trying to do is put the power back in their hands to say, ‘You still have that opportunity. What do you want?’”
Seeking better outcomes
ACCESS is operating with two buildings: an emergency shelter and a transitional house, which is a long-term program for single ladies. Clients are initially given 30-days of food, shelter and counseling at its emergency shelter. With a full-time job or school, clients can stay at the nonprofit’s transitional housing for up to two years while moving deeper into ACCESS’s programming.
Many of the entities that fund ACCESS — governments, foundations — are seeking outcomes that show program efficacy and evidence that the dollars donated are making an impact. While Budnick would like to propose that 30 days of safety, good food, sleep and stabilization should be an outcome, they’re not.
“Instead, they want everybody to have the four-bedroom house with the pool and the white picket fence, which of course is impossible. Because the interesting part is that if either you or I wanted to find housing with a good financial record and cash in hand, even apartments now have waiting lists, so you can’t get housing in 30 days.”
Budnick admits the nonprofit’s numbers of recidivism are high based on the definitions of its funders. But she says clients who stay a full 30-days, go through the programming, case management and are in recovery are stronger, are working and have learned life-changing skills.
Some 55 percent of those who come through ACCESS move on to what can be seen as positive outcomes, like entering a stable living environment, she says. But the other 45 percent aren’t successes. Some who come through the organization’s doors spend only two days there, find it’s too difficult and leave.
“So for us it’s a very mixed bag,” Budnick says. “What we want to be able to do is give as much education, as much information as we can. Sometimes you want to shake the ladies, but you can’t.
“We give them the best opportunity and we always treat every person with respect because you never know where they are in their journey. It’s sometimes the hug they get or the encouragement or the piece of information that will change their lives. And I can tell you there are dozens and dozens of stories where a hug made a difference.”