By Nathan Walls
Crystal Bennett points to a bridge on Cool Spring Street in downtown Fayetteville.
“That’s where some of our clients live,” said Bennett, executive director of Connections of Cumberland County. “Some of our clients live in places like that due to exhausting nightly shelter options.”
It’s a grim reminder of how some homeless live in Fayetteville, but also an example of how assistance is just around the corner. Connections – which connects homeless women and their children, single homeless women and those at-risk of becoming homeless, to resources they need to get back on their feet – is located just up the street from the bridge in the historic Cool Spring Tavern.
One client, Cindy Woods, is ecstatic about the success she has experienced since going to Connections. She went from being homeless to having a job, healthcare and housing in a quick time period. Woods became homeless in August following an eviction. She came to Connections in September and gained employment in October.
“They’ve helped me do a lot here,” Woods said. “They’ve helped me a lot with clothes. I found a job. They’ve helped me with housing. They helped me get my doctor – that’s been great because he’s a wonderful doctor. I paid $1 for my last doctor’s visit. They helped me with my birth certificate. They made sure I had a bus pass to get to my job interview. I got hired the first week in October and have been there six to eight weeks now. CEED is helping me get my housing. I love Connections. I tell people all the time who need help to come here. They make you do things on your own here, it’s not like they do everything for you. You’ve got to take the steps. It makes me feel better because it makes me feel like I am doing it on my own instead of somebody doing it for me.”
And there are more stories at Connections similar to Woods.
“I have a girlfriend who’s also come here and they’ve helped her immensely,” Woods said. “She is an older lady and had nowhere to go – they helped her get into assisted living.”
"Cindy obtained employment within weeks of coming here,” Bennett said. “I feel like if not for Connections, Cindy may not have achieved that. We have women who come here and leave their bags they have to carry throughout the day and go out into the community seeking employment and resources in order to alleviate that transitional lifestyle that has plagued them. If Cindy would have shown up to that place of employment with everything she has on her back, she would have been sent away. She probably would not have gotten that job. In order for us to encourage and empower her, we assisted her with holding her belongings. She was able to hit the streets and had a job within a month of coming here. That was wonderful for her. She is one of our success stories."
In whole, during the organization’s existence, from July 2014 to October 2015, Connections has helped 410 people, 204 of which were children. That assistance has been made possible because Connections has held true to its mission of connecting its clients, hence the name, to other community agencies.
"We have community partners that we have developed memorandums of understanding with,” Bennett said. “Our goal is to not duplicate any services but to assist clients in getting their needs met with other community providers that may have clothing closets, food banks or shelter opportunities, services for veterans, things like that."
Connections collaborates with Fayetteville Urban Ministry, Cumberland County DSS, Better Health, Action Packed Ways, CEED, Catholic Charities, Fayetteville Dream Center, Partnership for Children, FTCC, the City of Fayetteville, the Fayetteville Police Department, Salvation Army, Operation Inasmuch, Cumberland County Health Department, Cumberland County Schools and Interfaith Hospitality Network. University and college internship partnerships include UNCP, Methodist, FSU and California State Northridge. Connections is also developing an internship partnership with Boston University.
The interns assist with the Connections day resource center, which is the only day resource center that has case management specifically for women and children in Cumberland County – the case management component assists clients with navigating through the various agencies in the community.
“We are building a learning lab for interns,” said Patty Collie, one of Connections’ founding members and president of the organization's board. “We have out of state universities who have found out about us and they have local students working on their masters and some of them are interning with us. Our learning lab is very important because it's a mutually beneficial relationship for us and the students - they get hands-on experience and obviously we get people who help us with a very high traffic day resource center."
The day resource center allows clients to check out computers for educational, work and medical appointments and hosts activities related to seeking stable housing, employment and other needs the clients may have. The clients work with the interns and staff to set goals for themselves and become self-reliant.
Bennett said the Connections day resource center case management services help the organization to spend more time with the individual client compared with other agencies.
"We also have a program that requires a little more accountability from the women and it may assist them with rapid rehousing - it's called the Connect to Redirect program (C2R),” Bennett said. “It uses the CARE team approach. Women who are volunteers for us serve on CARE teams. C2R also has a counseling component - Connections has two counselors who work with clients. Once the clients' goals have been met, they join a CARE team to assist other homeless ladies. We are really focusing a lot of effort on the growth of that program.”
CARE stands for Connections and Coaching, Accountability, Resources and Empowerment.
Connections’ services have helped make a difference in many lives.
“It feels wonderful to see the growth and potential of people,” Bennett said. “We do get to spend a lot of time with women who are truly homeless, in shelter environments or on the streets. They utilize the day resource center to get off the streets. They could go to the library or they could go to these other places, but they come here and I think it's because our reinforcement of accountability on their part and belief that they can achieve more for their lives. We've seen people enrolled in college programs since coming here to Connections. We've seen people becoming employed who haven't had jobs for years and it's just an empowering environment for them and to see them grow and change in the matter of a few months is wonderful. I like to take pictures of our clients when they come in and months down the line show them pictures of how they have changed and how much their efforts have impacted their own lives. I am grateful we can be a part of that change, just impacting our community in such a way that we care about the ladies who come to our office. They are not just numbers to us, we want to see them succeed, we want to see them have different lifestyles, we want to see their children succeed in school. Being a part of that, I'm just grateful."
The community is on board with Connections, as exemplified by the generosity of those who have donated of their time and resources. A local Girl Scout group was working on their Silver Award and they created a beautiful space for Connections kids. They painted paintings, built bookshelves and donated DVDs.
"I have been moved by this community's giving spirit toward us,” Bennett said. "Everything that is brought to us by our community, whether it be monetary donations or any type of donation of material goods is resourced to the women in order to improve their lives to increase their opportunities. We appreciate every dollar that comes our way and every volunteer hour and every person that donates a good or service."
Connections also understands that every client is unique.
"They all have different needs,” Bennett said. “The case management component that Cindy experienced might differ from what someone else experiences because we focus on the immediate need and how we are going to meet those needs. Cindy was able to have her needs met for her."
And with Bennett, Connections has an executive director with a heart for her clients.
“I sometimes believe that our purpose is to show them their purpose,” Bennett said. “I don't believe that anyone's purpose is to struggle in homelessness and instability. We definitely believe that every person who walks through the door has a purpose."