The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Agency has helped reduce homelessness in area
BY AMY FLOWERS UMBLE
Greg Rechinger always knew the phone would ring in the middle of the night with bad news about his brother-in-law. And when the call came in the wee hours of New Year’s Day, it confirmed his worst fears: His wife’s brother was on life support.
But he was shocked to learn that Tommy Rodriguez, who had struggled with alcoholism since his teen years, wasn’t found in a ditch or on the side of the road.
Friends brought Rodriguez to the hospital, the doctor told his family.
“And they said that Micah helped him,” Rechinger said. “We were like, ‘Who’s Micah?’”
Micah is Micah Ecumenical Ministries, a coalition of Fredericksburg churches that banded together to help the homeless. In recent years, the organization has stepped up efforts to get the chronically homeless into homes.
Micah’s staff and volunteers helped Rodriguez get disability payments and use that money to rent his own apartment in the city, a tiny home with a bed, TV and cabinets brimming with food, including boxes of macaroni and cheese.
Rodriguez was a big fan of the comfort food, and finding the boxes in his home brought comfort to his family.
Rodriguez died on Jan. 2, at the age of 46. Shortly after his death, his family toured his tiny apartment.
“It was unbelievable,” Rechinger said. “Before, if he had any food, he would have sold it to buy alcohol. It was so beautiful to us, to walk in there and know somebody was able to do this for him.”
‘AN AMAZING GIFT’
Rechinger and his wife, Tammy, gave Rodriguez a place to live when he was in his 20s and drinking heavily. They took him to rehab countless times. For nearly 20 years, they kept time in 30-day increments. Rodriguez would go through one monthlong rehab stay after another.
“When he was sober, he was the nicest guy,” Rechinger said. “If he ever got his life straightened out, there were unlimited possibilities. Everyone loved him.”
But sobriety didn’t stick.
As the Rechingers’ children grew, the couple knew they couldn’t keep Rodriguez in their home. But they struggled with their guilt.
Five years ago, Rechinger found his brother-in-law sleeping in a horse trough behind a church. Rechinger brought his brother-in-law home. But again, it didn’t last.
For the intervening years, Rechinger didn’t hear from Rodriguez. He didn’t know exactly where his brother-in-law was living.
But daily, he felt guilt, imagining Rodriguez living in the woods or on the streets.
“For so long, we did our part, we carried that torch as long as we could,” Rechinger said. “We didn’t have the tools, but Micah did. They picked that torch up and they did a wonderful job. What an amazing gift we have received through them.”
Both Greg and Tammy have vowed to volunteer with Micah, to help other families going through their situation.
OFF STREETS, INTO HOMES
Micah staff and volunteers reach out to the chronically homeless, the people who often don’t fit into other programs. They usually can’t stay at the Thurman Brisben Center, which has a time limit and strict rules about drug and alcohol use.F
or the past five years, Micah’s staff have had success in housing the hard-core homeless, some of whom haven’t lived indoors in decades.
The agency began more than 10 years ago when churches created a coalition to save the Thurman Brisben Center when the homeless shelter couldn’t find a place to relocate.
Church leaders then learned that the homeless shelter focused more on families and individuals who could quickly get back on their feet, leaving the long-term homeless people in the cold. They recruited volunteers and set up a cold-weather shelter.
Five years ago, those church leaders hired a director and soon, the organization was running a hospitality center and a program to help homeless people get disability payments or jobs.
In the past five years, Micah has focused on getting the chronically homeless off the streets and into homes. They have housed more than 140 people.
‘THERE FOR TOMMY’
As the numbers of chronically homeless people rise around the state, the Fredericksburg area has seen a decline in those numbers.
Every January, regional homeless coalitions across the state count the homeless, to get a sense of the need for services.
Thursday night, volunteers took a census of this area’s homeless. The final numbers won’t be available for a few more weeks, but Meghann Cotter, director of Micah, expects the tally to include fewer chronically homeless than last year’s count.
“We’ve been putting quite a few of them in housing,” she said.
In fact, Micah’s staff is getting people into homes so fast that they don’t have enough beds to offer. Many of the newly housed are sleeping on the floor or on air mattresses. The area’s housing coalition is seeking donated beds to give these people a soft place to sleep at night.
Meanwhile, Micah leaders keep working on getting more people off the streets.
But for nearly every person who gets housed, a newly homeless person walks through the doors of Micah’s hospitality center on Princess Anne Street in Fredericksburg.
Last year, Micah staff and volunteers helped dozens of homeless people get into housing. The numbers of chronically homeless dropped by 20 people.
But for Greg and Tammy Rechinger, Micah’s work is about more than numbers.
“I cannot explain what it’s done for our family, to know that someone was there for Tommy,” Rechinger said.
Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973