Mallyveen Teah was a living a middle-class existence and attending college in North Carolina when his world began to fall apart.
Teah’s mother died of cancer, then family members from his homeland in Africa had to deal with the effects of a coup and political crackdown.
“It started a downward cycle; it led me off track,” he said of that time. “I sort of lost my focus.”
Eventually, he became homeless, but an encounter with the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network (A-SPAN) helped put his life back in order – which he proved by jangling the keys to his new home.
“Now, when I get off work and people ask me where I’m going, I have to think for a second and say ‘I’m going home,’ and I really mean it,” Teah recounted to a group of 300 community leaders who gathered April 24 for A-SPAN’s first “Coming Home Breakfast.”
The event was part fund-raiser, part celebration of the achievements made in reducing homelessness in Arlington, and part recommitment to making further progress.
“We have the right people, the right programs – and we get things done,” said A-SPAN executive director Kathleen Sibert. “We really make a difference, and I can see it.”
The gathering filled the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association conference center in Ballston, and the response seemed to take even Sibert by surprise.
“I am so overwhelmed by the amount of support here,” she said.
Founded nearly a quarter-century ago by local parishioners, A-SPAN has grown to provide a variety of services, and next year will start operating the Arlington County government’s new year-round homeless-services facility in Courthouse. Supporters of the organization said its goal of treating each individual with dignity has never changed.
“Every person on the streets, every one of them, they all have their own unique story,” said Tim Ward, A-SPAN’s board president.
While some perceptions of the homeless are grounded in reality, there are many homeless who defy stereotypes, said Ward, who got involved in the organization nearly a decade ago.
“I had a very narrow view of what homelessness means,” he said, but quickly discovered that “many [homeless people] have jobs or are looking for work. Many are in school.”
Keynote speaker John Shooshan, a local developer who has long been active in Arlington’s efforts to reduce and potentially eliminate homelessness, said the support services provided by A-SPAN, other agencies and the public literally can be the difference between life and death in some cases.
“These are our brothers, these are our sisters,” he said. “We can’t turn our backs on them. We just need to be more empathetic. Whoever we are, we can all do something to make a difference.”
One goal of the breakfast was to make up some of the roughly $200,000 a year that will be lost now that the Fannie Mae Help the Homeless Walk is no longer being conducted. A-SPAN had been a major beneficiary.
Shooshan got the ball rolling with a $5,000 contribution, which was matched by at least one person in the crowd as perhaps a dozen others pledged $1,000 each. Donations in any size were welcomed.
Among those who brought a checkbook was Sonia Johnston, Arlington president of John Marshall Bank and a new A-SPAN board member.
“This is dear to my heart,” she said of the organization’s efforts.
Last year, A-SPAN provided services to 1,011 homeless individuals, with its services ranging from emergency winter shelter and medical care to “rapid rehousing” and an outreach effort to military veterans. The organization is a partner in the “100 Homes Arlington” campaign, part of a national effort to place 100,000 of the most medically vulnerable homeless in housing.
Sibert said it makes sense, both economically and morally, to help those who find themselves in difficult circumstances, without casting judgment.
“It’s something that happens to you, but it does not define who you are,” she said of homelessness.