Huntsville homeless shelter fights to keep families together

No homeless shelters in the area allow a married couple to stay together.

WAFF 10:00-10:30PM - VOD - clipped version

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) -Crystal and her family recently ran into trouble.

It’s not a story she’s proud of, but she still wanted to share it, so people would know about New Futures Marilyn Mabry Lodge, a 13-unit, family homeless shelter on Venona Avenue.

If her family had not found New Futures, she doesn’t know where they would be - or if they would be together.

“We probably would have been separated or been left outside. My husband and I probably wouldn’t have stayed married. Our family would have fallen apart,” Castilio said emotionally.

No other homeless shelter in the area allows a married couple to stay together. Genders are segregated - even at mealtime.

Single moms are separated from sons 13-years-old and older; the teens have to go into the men’s side alone.

As for single dads? There isn’t any provision in Huntsville for a homeless father and his child to be together.

“To imagine, that a family could be separated is almost unfathomable. There is no other shelter that offers families the opportunity to stay together,” said New Futures director Tayna Rains.

But housing is just one component of New Futures' program.

New Futures networks with other agencies in the North Alabama Coalition for the Homeless, like the Alabama Career Center, as well as private organizations like the Christian Women’s Job Corps to help parents develop the vision, resources and skills necessary to re-build their lives.

“New Futures is a blessing because we can work and we can save and the kids can keep going to school. If we were separated, it probably would have been chaos,” said Castilio gratefully.

“We are focused on creating stability, and that starts with self-sufficiency,” said Rains.

And for Castilio, the first step to stable living and self sufficiency was getting a job.

“We’ve been here three weeks and have been pushing to gain employment from the start. We finally got one (a job) two days ago,” said Castilio with an infectious smile.

Creating a life of self-sufficiency together after sliding into homelessness can take some time and training. Rains has a drawer full of folders offering information on a plethora of resources New Futures makes accessible.

“We assist residents in enrolling in the programs available to them. That includes food stamps, medicaid, CHIP, G.E.D education and unemployment benefits,” said Rains.

However, many of the residents at the Marilyn Mabry Lodge are unable to take advantage of these programs when they first arrive because of a lack of documentation. Nearly half of its residents are in need of a drivers license or social security card and approximately 85 percent are in need of a G.E.D.

“Our families are not just people who have made bad choices,” Rains said. “Some do, of course, but some have experienced a catastrophic change overnight - illness, foreclosure, job loss or a spouse going to jail. Here, they can take a breath, begin to save money and connect with other agencies.”

“I had one resident come to us who was spending $600 a month, half her monthly earnings on transportation to and from work. She could take the bus to work but had to take taxis and cabs home because of route times and her work schedule. That’s not someone who made a bad decision. That’s someone who has work-ethic and was trying to persevere against some impossible circumstances."

Rains said after a year at New Futures, the woman was able to save the money to purchase a vehicle to travel to and from work.

That woman’s story is just one version of success at New Futures.

“We don’t measure success numerically. Success is measured on a case by case basis. For example, New Futures provides diapers to its residents. But if our residents are able to potty train their child during their time here, and they don’t have to purchase diapers after they leave - that’s success,” said Rains.

But most families at New Futures have the same goals as any other family.

“We want a four bedroom house, a car, and for my sixteen-year-old daughter to go to college in two-years,” said Castilio.

The lodge, a re-purposed assisted living facility, has the capacity to house up to 13 families. Each family has a private room and bathroom. Residents share a living room, children’s playroom and fully-equipped kitchen. The lodge’s kitchen has a community food pantry to help supplement any government or outside assistance residents may receive.

New Futures also supplies its residents with hygiene and household items such as soap, toilet paper, deodorant, paper towels and Clorox wipes.

Residents have to follow a set of house rules and guidelines to continue living at the lodge.

“The rules give the shelter structure and make it a place where families are able to become stable. I always tell people, the hardest thing about this job is having to kick a family out for not following rules. But as the director, I realize on the rare occasion a family has to leave, there are 40 more families we can help who will follow the rules,” said Rains emotionally.

“They are rules every family should have in their own home. The kids have to complete their homework each night. Families have to budget and save money. We have to do chores and keep the place clean. None of the rules are rules I wouldn’t have in my own home,” said Castilio confidently.

The local program only has one employee-Executive Director Tayna Rains, and the rest completely run by volunteers. Ninety-cents out of every dollar donated to the program goes to the families or the program’s expenses (everything but administrative costs).

Ninety-cents is about ten-cents more than Huntsville’s Salvation Army and Downtown Rescue Mission, according to Charity Navigator.

Three weeks ago, New Futures launched a new fundraising campaign. The organization is seeking 1,000 donors to donate $10 a month.

Rains says the money will help families get everything from ids to food.

“$10 goes a long way. $10 can feed a family for a day. $10 can pay for half a drivers license," said Rains passionately. “$10 goes a lot farther than you think it can.”

“I bought a pair of pants for myself and some socks to keep my daughters feet warm this winter for less than $10 at Walmart,” said Castilio.

Expenses total up quickly at the shelter. It costs approximately $500 a month to house a single family at the Marilyn Mabry Lodge.

Eventually, Rains hopes to raise enough money to expand the lodge and increase their housing capacity.

“We have over 40 families on our waiting list right now. I desperately want to house those families, but we just don’t have the space or the resources,” said Rains.

Rains says one of the greatest hurdles the shelter faces right now is communication.

“Most people don’t know that families are split up when they go to a local homeless shelter. They assume if you go to Salvation Army or Downtown Rescue Mission families stay together, but they don’t. It’s not something most people find out until they are in an unfortunate situation,” said Rains.

“We didn’t know we would be split up until we were here. Nobody thinks they are going to be in this situation. I mean, I never thought we would be in this situation," said Castilio.

“I’m grateful to New Futures. Like I said, it’s a blessing.”

Castilio has plans to give back to the shelter after her family leaves.

“I definitely want to give back once I’m stable because I know what it’s like to struggle. I’ve been there. I am there right now.”

People can donate to Castilio and the rest of the families at New Futures through PayPal or learn more about the organization on their website.

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