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As a girl, she stayed in a Portsmouth homeless shelter. Now she helps run it.

Virginian-Pilot - 10/11/2018

Oct. 11--PORTSMOUTH -- The maze of bedrooms, amenities and office space still looks a lot like the way Joy Shaffer remembers it.

But a lot has changed since her stay nearly three decades ago at what was then known as the city's PARC Family Shelter. At the time, Shaffer's mom was struggling to find a job and a place to live, so Room 4 was home for a month while employees helped them get back on their feet.

Now, Shaffer is an experienced nonprofit administrator who has made a career out of extending that kindness to other people. And last month, her love for that work saved the very place that rescued her from the streets as a little girl.

"I just think about the impact that it made on me and my family -- not having to bounce around and having a stable place to be," Shaffer said on a recent visit to the newly reopened shelter at 1900 Columbus Ave. "When people enter a shelter, it can be really discouraging. They don't always see the light at the end of the tunnel, so it's important for me to share my story to kind of encourage them a little bit."

Shaffer, who has a master's degree in community and clinical psychology from Norfolk State University, is a program director and mental health specialist with the Help and Emergency Response Shelter -- a local organization better known as the HER Shelter.

The nonprofit opened its first shelter in Portsmouth and then one in Chesapeake. It took over the facility on Columbus Avenue after its former operator, the Portsmouth Area Resources Coalition, shut it down in May.

The newly renovated facility, now called the Restore shelter, reopened under HER Shelter management in September. It will add 25 beds to the 50 the organization has at its older locations. The other shelters focus on helping victims of domestic and sexual violence and human trafficking, while the location on Columbus will be open to homeless families.

Homeless services are badly needed in Portsmouth. A Virginian-Pilot survey of 2017 data collected by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and population totals from the U.S. Census Bureau shows the city has a rate of about 160 homeless people per 100,000, more than double Virginia's rate of about 76 people per 100,000.

Beth Cross, the executive director at the HER Shelter, said Shaffer spearheaded the effort to reopen the former PARC shelter after the other group ran out of funding. One of Shaffer's duties with the organization, where she's worked for about 13 years, is putting together requests for grants needed to run its services.

"Joy is our go-to person for all the reports for all of our grants since she knows our numbers and how many we serve almost better than anybody," Cross said. "She knew that it was going to be tight for our capacity to be able to handle it, but she also knew that we could do it. We could make room because it matters."

HER Shelter staff briefly filled the void left by the PARC shelter's closure by giving hotel vouchers to families that sought services there, but it got too expensive. So Shaffer, driven by nostalgia and the city's desperate need to house its homeless, rallied coworkers to find a way to bring it back.

They asked to rent the building from the Portsmouth Redevelopment and Housing Authority and agreed to pay about $140 per month. The bulk of their spending is on utilities, staff salaries and basic living supplies such as food and toiletries for families.

"It just didn't sit well with us to have a space where families in need could go and just not have it open to them," said Olivia Smithberger, the crisis service director for the HER Shelter. "The fact that Joy was somebody that experienced homelessness and, you know, she's worked her butt off to get where she is now, that's just a cool kind of circle that felt good to us."

The Restore shelter is now managed by Chris Cephus, who started working for the nonprofit last year.

"You never know how that one person that you reach could change their life," Cephus said. "You can't ever say which one it's going to be, so it makes you work just as hard for each and every family."

Renovations have included fresh coats of paint, an updated living space and a children's playroom that's getting Dr. Seuss-inspired decor. It's been a tough makeover -- volunteers helped clear out dead mice and bugs before the beautifying began. But Shaffer's vision kept everyone motivated.

"When she wants to do something, you want to support her. That's as easy as it is," Cross said. "The goal was to open the shelter because there's no place for people to stay. They were going to do that no matter how much it took, and they did it."

Shaffer was only about 12 when she stayed at the PARC shelter, so her memories are vague. She can think back to hanging out with other kids and chatting with them over breakfast, though she doesn't know their names anymore.

But Room 4, which now serves another mom and her two daughters, still brings her back to the place she once called home.

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(c)2018 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

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