This is the third installment in a four-part series on homelessness in Fairfax County.
Watch a video of Patch's interview with Thella Jacobs.
Links to other parts of this series are below this article.
Amanda Colliflower and Thella Jacobs have never crossed paths. They’ve lived vastly different lives. But Colliflower, a former prostitute, and Jacobs, a former federal government employee, both landed in homeless shelters, and both knew they needed hope — and determination — to change their lives for the better.
Colliflower, 22, is on the road to getting back on her feet. Currently she lives with her 11-month-old daughter, Delilah, in a transitional housing apartment through New Hope Housing. It’s her toddling daughter that gets her through the tough times.
“I’ve come from nothing to something, basically,” Colliflower said. “Even though it’s sad because I kind of built my own homelessness, from not having to be homeless to having to. But you live and learn. I’ve learned that I can never do anything like that again.”
Jacobs, too, has seen some dark days.
“When you lose your home and become homeless, there’s a spiritual side of you that tells you the cavalry is not going to come and rise you up, even though I had a Christian background,” said Jacobs, 67. “The cavalry is not coming.”
Descent into Prostitution
Colliflower, a Maryland native, moved with her family to the Route 1 corridor at age 11. When she was 16, her mother died, and she moved to Springfield with her sister. She attended Mount Vernon High School but dropped out in 11th grade.
At the urging of her sister, she moved to Lynchburg to participate in Job Corps, a residential education and vocational training program. She earned her GED and her pharmacy technician certificate. She returned to the Alexandria area, where she worked at a local pharmacy. She also began working as an exotic dancer, then began dancing for private parties.
Then Colliflower did what she calls “something horrible” — she slipped into prostitution, working along Route 1, in Springfield, in Arlington and out of state. Around that time she began dating the man who would become Delilah’s father. He arranged for clients for her. He beat her.
Colliflower became pregnant. When she was five months into her pregnancy, she left prostitution behind.
“It was too hard,” she said. “It didn’t feel like it was the right thing to do, but I didn’t have anything else to do. But the pregnancy played a huge role. I just felt disgusting. I was disgusted by myself, and the fact that (my boyfriend) would still allow me to do that while I was carrying his child.”
The next month, Colliflower’s boyfriend left. She wouldn’t see him again until after Delilah was born. But his family was there. She stayed with his mother, then his grandmother, but she never felt welcome.
“It’s hard when you have to live in someone else’s house and you know you’re not wanted,” she said. “So it was a very hard time.”
She ended up living with her sister again. About that time, her boyfriend’s grandmother encouraged her to apply at Mondloch House II, a family shelter operated by New Hope Housing through a contract with Fairfax County. She moved into the shelter in July 2011.
The shelter was not where Colliflower wanted to raise Delilah or live herself. The people there were negative, she said. They were always in her business. They were critical of her. She was at Mondloch House for three weeks before the shelter closed for renovations and she and a roommate were assigned an apartment.
Last week, she entered New Hope Housing’s transitional housing program and lives in an apartment on Route 1, where pays 30 percent of her income to the housing organization for rent.
Colliflower works part-time — usually 39 hours a week — in the photo department at a local pharmacy for $8.75 per hour. She’s saving money and has paid off thousands of dollars in debt. She’s also applied to Northern Virginia Community College and has ordered the study books to re-take her pharmacy technician certification exam. Eventually, she hopes to earn a college degree and perhaps become a nurse practitioner.
“Now I have a wonderful daughter, because of my experience,” she said. “So even though it was such a bad and scary time, I had something wonderful that came out of it and changed my life for the better, because I’d probably be dead right now. I’d probably be in the street or laying in someone’s car, dead. Because I’ve been through a lot doing that. It’s very hard.”
Colliflower’s case manager at New Hope Housing, Marie Malave, called her an “amazing young woman” whom she sees renting her own place without assistance in the near future.
“She’s made her mistakes, which I understand,” Malave said. “She grew up with no support, but I think she’s taken ownership of them and has really taken control of them in her life. She’s on a really good path right now.”
Housing Assistance in South County
Founded in 1978, New Hope Housing is the oldest and largest provider of shelter beds in Northern Virginia. It is housed in a small office on Route 1 and locally operates, through contracts with Fairfax County, the 50-bed Eleanor U. Kennedy Shelter at Fort Belvoir, in addition to Mondloch House I, which serves eight chronically homeless single adults, and Mondloch II.
Despite the area’s high median income, poverty is rife along the Route 1 corridor, said New Hope Housing Executive Director Pam Michell. Contributing factors include the predominance of low-paying retail and housekeeping jobs and generational poverty.
The woods around Route 1 are home to multiple homeless camps, including spots at North Hill and one across from the intersection with Mount Vernon Memorial Highway. Michell said she’s constantly amazed at how people manage on so little and how people are survivors. The homeless may share common experiences, Michell said, but all are individuals.
“They’re children of God, and they have things to offer to us,” she said. “And they’re had some bad opportunities, they’ve probably made some bad choices, but don’t we all? Stop blaming them, and reach out and try to get to know them as people.”
Also filling the need for housing in southern Fairfax County is an agency that works closely with New Hope Housing, Good Shepherd Housing & Family Services. Founded in 1974, Good Shepherd now serves 650 to 700 households a year with homelessness prevention services and temporary housing.
The median family income in Fairfax County is more than $100,000, said Executive Director Shannon Steene, and most of the families they serve make 40 to 50 percent of that. Good Shepherd also participates in the Housing Locator Network, a collaborative project in which people trained in locating housing units serve as a bridge between people who need a place to live and landlords who have homes available.
Home at Last
Jacobs’ spotless apartment on Route 1 is downright cozy. A gas fireplace blazes in the living room. Family photos fill every corner. The dining table is set with place mats and flowers.
Getting here, Jacobs said, has been quite a journey.
Jacobs formerly lived with her brother in Arlington. She had worked as an administrative assistant for the U.S. Department of Interior for nearly 30 years when, in 1994, she accepted a buy-out because she planned to go into social work.
“It was a bad choice,” she said, “and I think maybe I should have stayed. But then again, when I look at my purpose in life today, I realize that that was only part of God’s plan for me.”
The social work career never panned out. Jacobs worked various jobs through a temp agency but never regained a steady income. Rents began to rise rapidly, and her brother moved to Washington. By 1998, she was homeless.
Jacobs bounced around from family member to family member, and from friend to friend. Eventually, she had no where to go. She found her way to the Kennedy Shelter. It turned out, she said, to be her saving grace, although the shelter seemed the furthest thing from a blessing at the time.
“When I walked in, I prayed that a hole would open up and just swallow me in, because there was nothing left,” Jacobs said. “I believed this was just the end. I was there, but just swallow me up, because I can’t go any further. I don’t know what to do.”
A counselor at the shelter told her she was going to succeed. She was going to make it. She was going to get back on her feet again. Jacobs had her doubts. She shelter was overcrowded. The first thing she did was buy a bottle of bleach to clean the dirty bathrooms, because she couldn’t stand to shower otherwise.
Still, Jacobs kept her spirits high. She planted flowers at the shelter so she could look upon them when she ventured outdoors. She taught other residents how to use the computer to make cards to send to their families.
Then she suffered a heart attack. “Once again, it was like, no matter what I do, I can’t succeed,” she said. “So I went into depression again.” Her doctor urged her to move out of the shelter and into a home where she had family and transportation, but there was no where for her to go.
Her heart condition eventually qualified her to receive Social Security disability payments. And, with the help of a counselor at the shelter, in 1999 she was able to move into transitional housing through through Christian Relief Services.
She found a job she could manage with her heart condition -- cutting fabric at Walmart. She also became involved in Rising Hope United Methodist Church, which lifted her spirits and led her to realize that she was worthy of both housing and love.
Then a woman named Marian Bouk gave her a break. Jacobs had received a Section 8 housing voucher but had no credit or cash deposit on hand to rent an apartment. Bouk, the landlord, instead asked Jacobs for three people who could vouch for her character. Jacobs received rave reviews, and the apartment, located off Route 1, was hers.
Bouk called Jacobs, who helps her out at the apartment complex, “fantastic.” “She cares about people,” she said. “She cares about herself. She gives her time to church all the time, and no matter what you ask her to do, she’ll do it.”
Jacobs went on to have a second heart attack and two strokes. She’s also diabetic. She’s thinking about finding work, despite her health problems, but for now she spends most of her time helping out at the church, where she serves as a lay leader.
There was a time, Jacobs said, when she couldn’t realize why bad things kept happening to her. Now she sees a reason behind the madness.
“What I went through, it was a training period, say, for doing what I do now,” she said. “... That is because God prepared me. He showed me the pain of homelessness. He showed me how people will help if you try to still keep going in spite of all that you go through.
“He showed me that this is the message that I have for others, who I would always like to always be able to give hope to. Put your faith in God first. Good things will happen if you try to help, no matter where you are.”
Just because you’re down, doesn’t mean you’re out, Jacobs said. “You not out until you say you’re out.”
About This Series
Homelessness is a serious problem for many in Fairfax County, especially because housing is so expensive here. This series will introduce you to some of the more than 1,500 people in Fairfax County who have experienced homelessness recently as well as the people trying to help them.
Part 1: A Night at the Shelter (Monday, March 12)