Two-and-a-half years ago, life was good for Seymour Lansdowne.
The Centreville man had a full-time job and owned a house, where he lived with his three children. Then a series of events began to turn his life upside down. He lost his job, his house and eventually, his middle child.
Lansdowne worked as a manager at a popular sporting goods store. He was working there the day he found out his 6-year-old son, Sey-J, had developed an aggressive form of lymphoma.
"I was forced to take more and more time off from my job to look after my son," he said. "My employers ended up letting me go."
Lansdowne said not long after losing his home, he wound up living for more than a month in the bone-marrow transplant unit at Children's Hospital, where his son was being treated. "I took showers at a nearby facility and ate when and where I could," he said.
Through the hardships, the one thing Lansdowne did not lose was his pride.
"As much as I didn't want to admit it, I was homeless," he said. "No one thinks it can happen to them, but I had to force myself to come to grips with the fact that it had happened to me."
Aid is out there
Teardrops to Rainbows, a Fairfax-based nonprofit organization which provides support, services and financial assistance to area children with cancer and their families, became involved in Sey-J's case.
"Sey-J was one of those incredible individuals that seldom complained, had an infectious smile, and seemed to be more concerned with you than himself," Teardrops to Rainbows President Lois Lyons said.
Members of the organization knew Lansdowne couldn't continue living in the hospital, so his case was referred to another local nonprofit based in Falls Church.
Homestretch, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, is the largest provider of transitional housing to homeless families in Fairfax County. The organization owns more than 70 residential units spread throughout the county that it allows qualified families to occupy as they work to get back on their feet.
"Over the past 20 years, we have helped over 950 families and 2,000 children," said Christopher Fay, executive director of Homestretch.
Fay said at any given time 75 or more families are enrolled in Homestretch and, during the course of a year, an average of around 120 families -- with about 300 children -- are served by the nonprofit.
"Our families are usually referred to us by other organizations like Teardrops to Rainbows," he said.
After a referral, adults are interviewed for as long as three hours to determine if they meet stringent Homestretch requirements.
"We look for those who we feel will most benefit from our services," Fay said. "We primarily help those who are homeless due to tragic or acute circumstances, and generally not those with chronic dysfunctional behaviors who would likely wind up resisting our help."
When qualifying families enter the program, they get keys to a new home, where they can stay for as long as two years. The homes are furnished, and Homestretch pays the majority of rent and utilities.
"The family agrees to contribute 30 percent of their income toward the rent, and they tuck away an additional 10 percent of their income into a managed savings account, which is used first to pay off any debts they have and thereafter as a long-term savings plan for when they graduate from Homestretch," Fay said.
While in Homestretch, families are urged to increase their earning power by first finding work and then concentrating on improving their employment skills and education so that their income continually rises.
In addition to housing, Homestretch provides legal services, credit and employment counseling and other services. The organization's $2.2 million annual budget is primarily funded by contributions and in-kind support, but also is subsidized by Fairfax County ($409,000), the Commonwealth of Virginia ($415,000), the office of Housing and Urban Development ($147,000) and the United Way ($39,000).
In July, Sey-J passed away at the age of 9. But with Homestretch's help, Lansdowne says he was able to provide his son a stable home environment for his last remaining years.
Lansdowne now is employed as a supermarket manager and might one day own the Homestretch house he and his children have called home for nearly two years.
In addition to his supermarket manager job, he also coaches a Little League baseball team and often lectures at area shelters.
"I now feel compelled to help others in need," he said. "Homestretch has done so much for me while at the same time allowing me to retain my self-respect. There is no way I can ever pay it all back, so instead I try to pay it forward."
Homelessness at a glance
-Families with children account for 40 percent of people who become homeless each year.
-One in every 50 American children is homeless.
-1.5 million children are homeless in the U.S.
-Less than one in four homeless children graduate from high school.
-Homeless children average 16 percent lower proficiency than fellow students in math and reading.
-Homeless children have an estimated high school graduation rate below 25 percent.
Source: National Center on Family Homelessness