PORTSMOUTH — Kiara Balch was 19 when the car she was living in wouldn’t start, she turned to Rochester police for help and was referred to the Cross Roads House homeless shelter.
Four months later, Balch is planning to move out of the shelter into her own apartment and agreed to be the face of people who benefit from Welcome Home baskets with essentials for starting new lives.
“I came here with a robe and a backpack,” said Balch, seated Tuesday in the woman’s dorm of the homeless shelter where she’s lived since Feb. 14.
Balch said she had been living in a children’s home, went to college and determined it wasn’t for her. Then she found herself homeless.
She said she lived in her car for several months last winter with “no place to go.” At Cross Roads House, she said, she worked with a case manager to learn real-life financial skills and has already improved her credit score, enough to start planning for a car loan. She works at a Portsmouth restaurant, has a new apartment lined up and a co-worker she can pay for rides to and from work.
When she leaves the shelter July 1, Balch will receive a Welcome Home basket, stuffed with housewarming must-haves.
“It’s very helpful,” said Balch. “It’s taken me so long to save up enough for an apartment.”
Jessica Parker, Cross Roads House’s development and marketing manager, coordinates the Welcome Home baskets program, which relies on the kindness of strangers. Donations are being sought for residents, like Balch, who will need, lamps, cutlery, dishes, trash cans, pots and pans, towels, soaps, bathroom items and bedding. Donations of appliances, first aid kits, flashlights and batteries, paper goods and non-perishable foods are also sought.
“These are essentials people need when they start out,” said Cross Roads House Executive Director Martha Stone. “This helps people launch their new lives.”
Stone said people generally leave the shelter for Portsmouth Housing Authority apartments, out-of-town where it’s more affordable or to apartments where landlords accept Housing Choice vouchers, formerly known as Section 8 vouchers. She said case workers now assist shelter residents when they move on to new apartments and can also benefit as liaisons with landlords.
Stone said shelter residents are only allowed three bags of personal belongings, so when they leave, they need more.
“Because we’re their last resort, many people lost items while they were moving place to place or staying in cars,” Parker said.
Stone said Cross Roads staff provides transitioning residents with a “rent ready” program to learn budgeting, credit repair and tenants rights and responsibilities. She said they also provide a ready-to-work program, teaching interviewing skills and how to be good employees.
Last year, Stone said, 100 percent of families in the Cross Roads transitional housing program (as opposed to the emergency shelter) moved out into the community. She said 83 percent of single people moved out during the same year. During their shelter stays, she said, they have access to health, dental and mental health care.
“We’re so much more than a place where people sleep and eat,” Stone said. “When people get here, they need more than just housing.”
Parker urged anyone wishing to donate items for the Welcome Home baskets to first email her at [email protected] to learn which items are immediately needed.
“People work so hard to save money” for new apartments, she said. “It’s helpful for a fresh start.”