At the February 25 virtual Coffee and Conversation, Many Hands members were greeted with surprising good news. Homestretch, recipient of a Partner Grant last year, has not only survived the pandemic but flourished.

“We’ve done better financially than we planned, with a 37% increase in donor giving for 2020 over 2019,” Grants and Communications Manager Nan Monday explained. “We had an increase in first-time donors as well as loyal donors. We have not had to cut staff or reduce services. We are very grateful.”

Homestretch, which has twice received a Partner Grant from Many Hands, has helped over 2000 families in its 30-year history. Its approach is unique.

“Most organizations say the solution to homelessness is to provide housing,” said Monday. “We say the solution is to break the cycle of poverty. We used to be a transitional housing program; we feel now we’re more transformational than transitional.”

Over the past decade, federal housing policy–and federal funding–have prioritized rapid re-housing, usually accompanied by short-term assistance. In contrast, Homestretch commits to providing families with housing for two or more years, until they are stabilized. They embrace their clients with intensive case management and services, including employment counseling, GED tutoring, psychotherapy, and pro bono legal services, as Homestretch Case Manager Alejandra Carrera explained. Their support also extends to children, providing school supplies, new shoes and winter coats, and after school and summer camp programs. They celebrate the children’s birthdays and holidays, making sure every child gets presents.

In return Homestretch expects families to live up to certain commitments. Adults must work 40 hours a week, or complete a combination of education and work. Thirty percent of their income goes to rent. Ten percent of their income must go to a savings account.

Homestretch currently serves 26 families. Ninety-six percent are headed by single parents. Forty-one percent of clients are employed. Many are underemployed, not getting enough hours or high enough wages to pay for market rate housing.

All clients are required to participate in financial counseling and make specific financial commitments. “I work with clients to build up their savings,” said Credit Counselor Heather Lynskey. “Ten percent of their income goes into their savings, and we manage the accounts. Their tax refunds go there. They can’t touch the money until they graduate.”

The results are remarkable. Lynskey said the average Homestretch family enters the program over $6,700 in debt. By the time they graduate, on average they have paid off $2,700 of debt and built savings of nearly $10,000. What’s more their credit scores show a 114 point increase. Perhaps even more impressive, outcome studies have found that 90% of Homestretch graduates are working and living in their own homes two to five years after leaving the program.

When asked how they achieved those results, Carrera responded: “Working with Heather is a big one. That and the employment counselor. Raising their income and finding employment they’re interested in. With Heather’s work the families see dollar for dollar how their money is raising their credit score. They can watch their nest egg grow. I believe that’s our secret sauce.”

“That and the fact that it’s mandatory,” Lynskey chimed in. “They have to use [their earnings] to save and pay off their debt. Other programs may provide some coaching, but we actually make it happen.”

All three Homestretch presenters said that although the pandemic had presented challenges, slowing down some families’ momentum and causing a need for more mental health services, in general they were pleasantly surprised by the pivot to more virtual services. They were able to do virtual family assessments and use Facetime to do walk-throughs of apartments.

Lynskey, who has been with Homestretch since 2003, said she felt she could work as effectively on Zoom as she did face to face in her office. There were even some advantages: “For me, working on Zoom is easier. Our clients work full time and often are too tired to meet with me in the evenings. With Zoom I can meet with them during the day on their lunch break.”

They set up a portal so clients could make payments on line. “It’s so much more convenient for clients, and rent is being paid in full and on time better than ever,” said Lynskey.

During the members’ Q&A after the Homestretch presentation Board member Lynne Battle asked about the impact of Many Hands’ grant of $55,000. “It’s phenomenal and we’re very grateful,” said Monday. “It helped us provide housing for several families. It’s unusual to get [a grant] that large; most are not.”

Board member Anna Pfeiffer asked how we can help. “Tell your friends about us,” said Monday. “We don’t take government funding any more because of the rapid rehousing approach. Direct people to our website.”

-Reporting by Kathy Slobogin

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To watch Homestretch’s 30th anniversary video, including stories of many graduates, click here.

You can also watch the recording of Homestretch’s Coffee & Conversation presentation below: