Leader of homeless shelter says she is a former client
DOVER, N.H. (AP) — Susan Ford feared she would lose custody of her children if she sought refuge at a homeless shelter with them.
Her daughter was 4 years old, and her son an infant. Ford, then 29, had lost her home, which came not long after her now ex-husband received a lengthy prison sentence for robbery.
“Am I going to lose my kids because I’m not providing?” she worried.
Ford didn’t seek help right away. First, she stayed with her mother-in-law in Maine, but then returned to the Dover/Somersworth area where she grew up and stayed with friends, as her parents had both died. But she could only live with two children on a couch for so long. With few options and prodding from her friends, Ford went to the city’s welfare office for assistance, which led her to the homeless shelter My Friend’s Place on Washington Street in Dover.
“It was a tough decision to go. It was a scary unknown,” said Ford, now 52 and executive director at the nonprofit shelter that helped turn her life around. Ford said her fear about her losing her children is a common one, but it’s misplaced. “Going to a shelter is the best place not to lose your kids. You’re in a supervised environment. There are resources there.”
Ford said her path to homelessness was a series of bad decisions, which included marrying her first husband, who was physically abusive to her. And she had baggage she carried with her from childhood, like being sexually assaulted and dealing with her father’s death at a young age. Ford said her mother’s main life lesson to her was to marry a man who could provide for her, not how to provide for herself.
It was at My Friend’s Place where she started getting those life lessons and becoming honest with herself about how to make a change. Now, as it was for her stay in the mid-1990s, the shelter’s case managers pried into her life with a comprehensive assessment.
“We’re not nosy or like drama,” she said. “We also know that homelessness isn’t the problem, it’s the symptom of a much larger or more complex problem or problems.”
Ford said being open and honest about one’s situation to themselves and case managers isn’t always easy for the clients. Many of them never fully trust the case manager’s intentions, and she worries these clients will end up homeless again when the next crisis occurs.
With the assessments, the case managers can begin to understand what led a person to not having a place to live and what resources are available to them. Ford said the clients who come to the shelter typically fall into three categories: Those with substance abuse challenges, those with mental wellness challenges, “and those who just didn’t learn what they needed to learn and made bad decision after bad decision after bad decision.” She put herself in the third category.
Ford said she understands many people coming to the shelter have had emotional traumas, which can lead many to feel their challenges are insurmountable.
“Not everybody handles trauma or death the same way,” she said. “It’s upsetting, and it’s difficult when you have those challenges or barriers, but it doesn’t change the situation you are in, and it doesn’t change what you need to do to get out of them.”
For Ford, the case manager helped her learn some basic skills she hadn’t learned before, like budgeting, healthy food choices and being honest with people if challenges arise.
The case managers helped Ford enroll her daughter in the Head Start program run by Community Action Partnership of Strafford County. That enabled her to connect to other resources and a job with Child and Family Services. “If my kids weren’t in Head Start, I would have never found out about the job,” she said.
From there, she got a job with Strafford CAP and obtained a degree in human services administration and business management at Granite State College. Ford worked at CAP for 18 years, the last five as executive director of the Homeless Center of Strafford County. She was hired as the My Friend’s Place executive director in 2016.
Ford came to the shelter before Thanksgiving in 1995 and left in May 1996. She landed a place with the Dover Housing Authority and by 2001 had purchased a house.
“It’s not rocket science,” she said of her turnaround. “I believe we make our own luck.” But it was a learning process to find a path that worked for her. It’s all about taking that first step, which was going to the welfare office and asking for help, she said.
Ford calls My Friend’s Place a medium-barrier shelter. Clients who stay there have to commit to being sober and substance free. If you’re caught drinking or doing drugs on the property, “You’re out,” she said.
The shelter is a mix of singles and families. It serves roughly 200 people a year, 45 percent of whom are children. Clients come to the house in two ways: One is the person who needs immediate shelter, like someone who got kicked out of their house overnight with no place to go.
“If we have floor space, we’ll put them in our living room. Those folks can stay at least three days,” she said. The three-day period provides enough time where case managers can work with other agencies to find the best fit or other resources for the person.
The other way clients come to the shelter is through the Coordinated Entry, a program run by Strafford CAP. The process is made to help prioritize need. These clients are often longer term stays.
The shelter operates on a budget of about $350,000, which comes from a mix of private, state and federal grants and local donations.
“We’re doing the best we can with the money we got, but we need more money,” Ford said, adding staff wages have been stagnant and there is a need to hire another case manager, but there is no funding for it.
Ford said the shelter is always in need of food donations, perishable and non-perishable. Clients who come to the shelter often have to wait five days to get emergency food stamp benefits. It’s not uncommon for the food stamps to not cover all their food needs. What they don’t get a lot of is fresh produce and meats.
“Normal groceries that people buy,” she said. Don’t give what you wouldn’t eat yourself. Donations of condiments are also helpful as well as bedding sheets and tissues.
Ford says they are also looking for volunteers to help at the shelter, such as helping with the weekly bingo fundraiser, paperwork or gardening work. They also need help with the updating organization’s website and redesigning its logo.
Information from: Portsmouth Herald, http://www.seacoastonline.com