Building community for homeless youth in Northern Virginia
When Adam turned 18, he lost his support system. A legal adult, he could no longer stay at the youth shelter and took up residence with strangers twice his age. Then his school, a daytime refuge, shut down due to COVID. Adam had to leave the shelter by 8 o’clock each morning with nowhere to go—restaurants, libraries, and businesses were all closed.
Mobile Hope became Adam’s lifeline. He volunteered for Listen for the Honk, Mobile Hope’s bus outreach program, helping feed families in need. Adam worked alongside community leaders and peers, developing connections and confidence. He got his first job and stable housing in a safe neighborhood. Upon graduation, he enlisted as a Marine recruit.
Offering a lifeline at a time of crisis
Mobile Hope began a decade ago to fill an unmet need in Loudoun County—helping homeless and at-risk youth up to age 24 find their footing. “No one was really doing anything for these homeless kids,” recalls Mobile Hope’s Founder and CEO Donna Fortier. This is a particularly vulnerable cohort, as people over 18 no longer qualify for public youth services but are not yet established as adults. “The youth that we serve, they want to be invisible,” explains Mobile Hope’s Director of Development Allyson Ruscitella. Many youths in transition struggle to find a job; some, like Adam, are still in high school.
Recognizing a gap in support for local “transition-age youth,” Donna Fortier, then Director of Community Affairs at Inova Loudoun Hospital, began distributing clothing, food, and hygiene items to youth in need using the hospital’s bus. Soon thereafter, Mobile Hope became an independent nonprofit and expanded its Listen for the Honk mobile service, engaging the young people it serves as volunteers.
When the pandemic hit in early 2020, Mobile Hope saw demand for its services grow fivefold literally overnight. “The night our school system closed, we realized we needed to go even further into the neighborhoods,” Fortier recalls. The team increased their community visits from 4 to 20 per week. “The lines were like people going to a rock concert. There were 300, 400, 500 people standing in line.”
“Once the fast-food restaurants closed, the library closed, the schools closed, they literally had nowhere to go. So a lot of them came to us,” explains Ruscitella. “We decided to heighten our services before we knew that there would be any funding available from anywhere. Because we just responded to the need.” Fortier chimes in, “The team said, ‘Yup, it’s what we’ve got to do.’ We were filling a huge gap.” Since the pandemic began, Mobile Hope has served over 250,000 family members through Listen for the Honk.
“The lines were like people going to a rock concert. There were 300, 400, 500 people standing in line.”– Donna Fortier, then Director of Community Affairs at Inova Loudoun Hospital
Supporting youth on a journey to self-sufficiency
Beyond meeting basic needs for food, hygiene, and safe shelter, the organization provides individualized case management and volunteer opportunities to help youth develop a sense of purpose and community. The nonprofit honors the value and potential of each individual in its mission statement: “We believe every youth has unrealized potential, and we are honored to stand with our kids on their journey from homelessness to self-sufficiency.” Kimberly Valenzuela, who came to Mobile Hope at a time of personal crisis, reflects: “Without them, I wouldn’t have known what it feels like to be part of a family who doesn’t see what you’ve done in the past, but who you can become;” today, Valenzuela helps other young people find their way as the client operations manager of Mobile Hope.
Building community and a home on an Airstream
Community is central to Mobile Hope’s vision for healing. Ruscitella explains, “We really want to create a place where we have creative interventions that will help our kids experience post-traumatic growth.”
One such community-building creative intervention is the Airstream Community, funded with a grant from Microsoft. A team of staff, skilled volunteers, and youth are working together to transform a 1976 Airstream into emergency shelter for homeless youth. The youth served are not only designing and building the shelter, but also developing critical trade and life skills. Most profoundly, they are building relationships and discovering purpose and leadership.
Finding shelter for homeless youth is a top priority for Mobile Hope, but the current option, a hotel room, is expensive and isolating for a young person. The Airstream Community will eventually provide several shelters located on the Mobile Hope campus, so young people share a home base with peers near support resources.
Central to the project is the process itself—the renovation of the Airstream. Ruscitella describes the Airstream renovation as “transformative” for youth in crisis: “It has provided them a project they can immerse themselves in, reinforced a sense of belonging, provided the opportunity to work on a team, and enabled them to develop valuable hard and soft skills. And we have had fun and laughs along the way—which is vital for the kids we serve.”
They will work alongside skilled craftspeople to refine the design and build it, from electrical and plumbing to finish work. In this way, the construction project acts as a lab for Mobile Hope’s Trading Up program, where youth learn trade skills such as sustainable design and building techniques. Vibrant design with thoughtful details is central to transforming the silver Airstream shell into a home.
Eventually, Mobile Hope envisions expanding the Airstream community with two additional mobile homes. The organization is also considering other creative shelter ideas like tiny homes or converted shipping containers.
“We really want to create a place where we have creative interventions that will help our kids experience post-traumatic growth.”—Allyson Ruscitella, Director of Development, Mobile Hope
Helping young people find strength and resilience in adversity
Looking ahead, Mobile Hope plans to build on its fleet of services with a Wellness Center. Resilience takes resources and a support network, which many homeless and at-risk do not have. As a result, Fortier explains, adversity that could be a catalyst to growth can compound into further adversity and even self-sabotaging behavior. “They might not feel they deserve to be successful.”
The planned Wellness Center aims to promote personal growth through whole-body and mind health, shifting the mindset toward positive change rather than perpetuating the trauma. Meditation, yoga, and a boxing ring are among the center’s planned activities— “a lot of fun, cathartic things that will help these kids move forward,” Fortier explains.