Helping Struggling Families Toward a Better Life

Laura Reichsman, program director for CHD’s Family Outreach of Amherst (FOA), doesn’t hesitate when asked what her motivating factor was in becoming a caseworker at FOA 31 years ago. “I was a poor teen mom who grew up in Amherst, just trying to get ahead,” she said. At one point she was on welfare, and dealing with getting her son to day care while she was attending community college.

Prior to joining FOA, which provides essential social service support to at-risk families in Amherst, for a while she worked at the Necessities/Necesidades battered women’s shelter in Northampton, which is now known as Safe Passage, and it was a labor of love for her because she had grown up with violence in her household. Recalling a period in her life when she was debating to herself what the next step in her career would be, she used a fishing metaphor. “I was just sort of casting around, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” she said. “I knew I wanted to help people.”

In 1989, a homeless shelter for women and children in Amherst closed, and although the shelter’s employees found housing for its six families, staff were still concerned that the families weren’t stable enough to sustain their housing. “They were given the equivalent of first and last month’s rent, and enough for a security deposit, but they had no supports to keep them housed,” she said. Enter FOA, which was created that same year to follow the families into the community to ensure that they would not become homeless again.

Reichsman had ideas about supporting Amherst families, but this would require grants, so she got busy learning how to write grants by attending workshops. “Ronn Johnson, who was CHD’s vice president of Children and Families, said to me, ‘If you can fund it, you can do it,’” she said. “That was the most powerful message I had ever gotten in my life.” She created an advisory board of influential Amherst citizens and started writing grants, and the rest is history: FOA has gone from assisting those original six families to serving more than 600 families each year with multiple programs to assist with mental health issues, domestic violence, addiction, housing, and life skills.

Amherst, the quintessential college town, is culturally rich with tree-lined streets, but there is a large divide of wealth that isn’t apparent at first glance. “The middle class in Amherst is very small,” said Reichsman. “You see the big houses and restaurants—a thriving community, but you have this hidden population that’s feeding all these students, cleaning the hotels that people are staying in, and doing the laundry in the nursing homes.” She points out that all it takes is for one of these parents to miss a week of work because of illness, or their car breaking down, and suddenly they owe back payments on their utility bill. “If you have a $500 car repair, and your car is your only means to get to work, you have to pay that bill,” she said. “But then you get behind on your utility payments or rent. Most rental lease agreements have a clause that if a tenant’s electricity is shut off, they are out of compliance with the lease, and eviction proceedings can start.”

Reichsman said that although FOA is a “safety net” for struggling families, building true partnerships with those families is essential to their success. “I think the key in helping these individuals and families is that they must be experts in their own lives—we have to meet people where they’re at, whether it’s doing a home visit because they’re about to be evicted, or the school has called and their child is in danger of failing,” said Reichsman. “This is something I tell every caseworker I’ve ever worked with—it’s their life, but we’re here to help.”

Each time Reichsman celebrates a family’s success, it reminds her of why she throws so much of herself into her job—whether it’s a once-homeless mother who is presented with a college degree, or when a refugee from a war-ravaged country becomes a citizen, or when a family FOA has helped purchases their first home.

“But I’m also in it for the struggle—when someone is really in crisis, when someone loses custody of their children because of addiction, or when a family is about to become homeless,” said Reichsman. “That’s when the power of intervention is huge.”

While FOA has certainly expanded its original housing mission, housing stability remains a focus because the lack of it has overwhelmingly adverse effects on mental, behavioral, and physical health of those affected. “It’s very hard to get the services you need when you’re sleeping on someone’s floor or couch, and the impacts of homelessness on children is well documented,” said Reichsman.

In Amherst, a constant supply of college students allows landlords to set apartment prices extremely high, so the monthly rent of an average apartment in town is above the allowable federally funded Section 8 housing voucher limit. The voucher pays a portion of the rent, and the tenant is responsible for the rest of it—if they can afford it. Too often, they can’t. That’s why Reichsman is proud of FOA’s efforts to give families the support they need.

“Last year, in our Community Housing Support Program, we served 288 families, and none of them were evicted,” she said. “We are committed to help these struggling families’ journey toward a better life, and we are honored to be a part of this journey.”