New program guides homeless in starting their own businesses

Becky Blanton became homeless by choice 10 years ago, but she didn’t realize the societal
and psychological ramifications she would experience. Today Blanton wants to help others in the same situation. Photo by Keith Alan Sprouse Becky Blanton became homeless by choice 10 years ago, but she didn’t realize the societal and psychological ramifications she would experience. Today Blanton wants to help others in the same situation. Photo by Keith Alan Sprouse

Becky Blanton became invisible 10 years ago. She shared her story—how she went from working as a newspaper editor to living out of her van and eventually identifying as homeless—with her fellow entrepreneurs in a Community Investment Collaborative program in the fall of 2015.

CIC runs a 16-week program for local entrepreneurs in Charlottesville, as well as Fluvanna and Louisa counties. It caters to small businesses, determining whether each idea is viable and then educating participants on the ins and outs of running a business.

Toward the end of the class, Blanton was asked to talk about what motivated her to join. She said she had previously experienced homelessness, living in her 1975 Chevrolet van for a year and a half while in Colorado. Afterward, four people approached her and confided that they, too, had been homeless—and a few still were.

“I was surprised,” Blanton says. “It can happen to anyone. Sometimes it’s just for a week, sometimes it’s a couple of months until you find an apartment. You couch surf or you sleep in your car, or a hotel room if you can afford it.

“After people came up to me and told me they were homeless, that’s when I came up with the idea to write [The Homeless Entrepreneur],” Blanton says. “I thought, ‘If I could put what I just told the class into book form, maybe I could touch other people, too.’”

It took her just a few weeks to put the story together. She then reached out to her CIC instructor, David Durovy, to get his opinion.

“Becky sent me the PDF she had just written on the book and had asked me to go through it, make some comments and suggestions,” Durovy says. “I was very impressed with it. Not only was it good for people who are down and out and need help, or are broke or homeless, but I thought it had a lot of great wisdom in there for anybody. I said she should do a class for the homeless.”

The book followed Blanton’s experiences in Colorado more than a decade ago, in 2006. She was working seven days a week, 12 hours a day as an editor for a small newspaper in Craig, a town of about 9,500 people, less than an hour from the Wyoming border.

Her father died of a brain tumor a month prior to her start at the paper. Blanton says her dad’s biggest regret was that he worked all the time. So she quit her job, bought a van and became a freelance photographer.

“When that job ended, I tried to find another one and I couldn’t,” Blanton says. During this time, she packed up and moved to Denver. She landed a job at Camping World, making $11 an hour, but it wasn’t enough to afford an apartment.

“It’s like trying to find an apartment in Charlottesville on $9 an hour,” she says. “So I said, ‘Well, I’ll just live in the van until I find something.’ For me, it was like camping. I’d been an RV-er and camper most of my life. Living in a van was no big deal, but when you’re 50 years old and you’re female, people see that as ‘you’re homeless, poor you.’”

She wasn’t able to find an affordable place for another 18 months, despite having jobs.

Showering and parking were difficult, but she became creative. While working at a temp agency, she got off on the wrong floor and discovered the office building had showers in the bathrooms. So, she started using those. She also washed up in truck stop bathrooms, and took advantage of a local YMCA.

“When I got the Camping World job, they had a gym and a shower for their employees so I could go in the morning and before I left work at night,” she says. “If it was really hot, I could take a shower to cool off before I got in the van.”

Then, the challenge became where to park.

“You have to change where you park every night,” Blanton says, listing the various places she would hide the car. Parking lots, parking garages, Walmarts, rest areas, truck stops, even hospital parking lots housed her van. “Police officers get used to seeing a car in a certain place, so you have to change (it) up.”

Blanton says she was working in one of the richest suburbs of Denver—Rolls-Royce, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus dealerships were just down the street from the Highland Ranch Walmart where she parked her van.

She said although those months were challenging, things were okay until her coworkers at Camping World found out about her situation.

“[They] were calling me ‘that homeless woman,’” Blanton says. “I started to believe it. I mean, everything I know about psychology and social experiments—I shouldn’t have believed. …I should have just kept thinking ‘I’m an RV-er,’ but I started to believe it.”

The bullying from her coworkers, the names and the looks they would give her, began to take its toll.

“When you start to believe other people’s perceptions about who you are and what you are, you change,” Blanton says. “You become that. I started seeing myself as a homeless woman. I started avoiding people’s eyes.”

Blanton admits she was suicidal.

But one day a friend called her while she was sitting in the back of her van. The friend said the late Tim Russert, the longest-serving moderator on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” was talking about her on television. Before she was a newspaper editor she had written a story competing to be in his latest book. Out of 60,000 submissions, hers was chosen.

When the book, Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons, was published, Blanton picked up a copy and read it. When she saw her name, it clicked—she was not a homeless woman, she was a writer.

“Then, I changed my own mindset,” Blanton says. “It was instantaneous.” She vowed that whenever she made it out of the rut, she would help people just like her.

Blanton and Durovy were planning to teach an entrepreneurship class after the CIC program, but it didn’t have enough students. So the pair decided to use Blanton’s book as a basis for the Suitcase to Briefcase program for homeless entrepreneurs in Charlottesville. The pilot project came together quickly, in a couple of weeks.

“You can literally change your mindset and change who you are, what you want and how you feel about yourself in an instant with the right input, and that’s what’s important to me,” she says. “It’s not that I’m going to teach people how to start a business. It’s that I’m touching them on a deeper level and I believe in them. People don’t believe in homeless people. They think they’re lazy and they’re crackheads. I want to be, to them, what that book was to me.”

Durovy says they had two major goals: Change the way homeless people see themselves and change the community’s perception of homeless people. The pair partnered with The Haven, a local homeless shelter, to bring their program to life.

The Suitcase to Briefcase pilot program, led by Becky Blanton, was held at The Haven, a local homeless shelter. Photo by Keith Alan Sprouse
The Suitcase to Briefcase pilot program, led by Becky Blanton, was held at The Haven, a local homeless shelter. Photo by Keith Alan Sprouse

Samantha Wood is a housing stabilization case manager for The Haven. She worked closely with Suitcase to Briefcase, and helped recruit participants.

“Their model and mission fit with our model and mission,” Wood says. “We put the word out. I reached out to some of my clients, other staff reached out to people they know.”

While the program ran independently, Wood says The Haven supported it through each step. It provided a home for participants to meet in, as well as let them use resources like computers at the shelter. The program’s orientation was held in the sanctuary room, and open to anyone who was interested. The rest of the classes were held in the lunchroom.

Durovy says the first session was the most nerve-racking. “I was hoping at least one person would come, and we had about 10 people show up. Of that group, all but three joined the class, and right off the bat my expectations were exceeded.”

The outline of the class was simple, Durovy says. It was loosely based on Blanton’s book, but they followed some of the ideas that CIC uses. They planned field trips and had local community members come in and speak.

“Mostly, we were trying to create a foundation so we could get some of the basic mindset in place, and an understanding of what they are getting into,” Durovy says. “[Focusing on] more of the soft skills, which are working on business ideas, learning their pitch.”

During the course of the eight weeks, Suitcase to Briefcase connected with various organizations and businesses in the community. Nursing students from the University of Virginia came every week to take basic health stats. And during field trips the group visited a local glassmaker, as well as the i.Lab incubator at UVA’s Darden School of Business, among other places.

“We went to the i.Lab coffee espresso event one morning, which is filled with professors and entrepreneurs and students,” Durovy says. “To have us walk in there was just a treat. Being able to take these folks places that normally they would be shunned, but all of a sudden they were starting to appear places and be recognized and addressed by people with a whole different level of respect.”

Originally they wanted the class to be three hours long, but there were some concerns about keeping people’s attention for that long. But they quickly discovered two hours wasn’t enough. Once the conversations got going, participants would hang around afterward talking.

“At first, folks were just getting used to the class, their classmates, Becky and David,” Wood says. She sat in on about half of the courses during the eight-week program. “Sometimes with our folks, they’ve been burnt so many times, it may take them a little bit to gain trust. They can be a little skeptical. It took time to warm up, then it started to feel like a cohesive group, very supportive of each other.”

All of the topics covered were focused around the basics of business. A couple classes dealt with money and finance. Some of the participants’ ideas included an online gaming website, a T-shirt business and an urban fashion line.

“We emphasize that they are responsible for themselves,” Blanton says. “They can make poor choices or wise choices. We’re there, not to rescue them, but for advice. We’re mentors, not social workers.”

Durovy says the passion and commitment of the entrepreneurs inspired him. “Right up to graduation and continuing on—the desire to do something with their lives was evident, obvious and they were motivated.”

Success story

The first time Robin Houser was homeless was as a 29-year-old college student in Alabama in 1986. After getting her GED, she headed south from her parents’ home in Stafford County, and enrolled at Calhoun Community College with funds she received from the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services. She worked on the weekends as a certified nursing assistant for hospice patients, but found that the money she made was not enough to pay for housing, so she slept in her car. Eventually, she also began taking classes at Athens State University and qualified to live in a dorm room, but her college experience wasn’t all positive. She discovered that she had severe learning disabilities—which had gone previously undetected in high school—and after five quarters she had a C+ average. After needing to go back to work full-time, she quit taking classes and moved north, back to her parents’ home, and worked as a home health nurse.

Fast forward a couple decades, and Houser again found herself living in her car—this time a van, from which she had removed the seats to allow herself more room. She had been living in Section 8 housing in Charlottesville, and had applied for a housing transfer to Waynesboro. She thought the process would take 30 days or less, but found herself without a home and nowhere to go. She would park her van at various places: a campsite in Waynesboro, Walmart parking lots in Charlottesville, Ruckersville and Waynesboro. She moved around because she didn’t feel safe staying in one place. It was wintertime, and she kept warm by covering herself with several blankets. Soup kitchens became a source for food.

Last November, two years after her five-month homeless stint, she was back at the First Baptist Church which runs a soup kitchen, not out of necessity but out of fellowship. She had loved listening to the sermons and music and talking with other people. It was during this visit that a church staffer told her about the Suitcase to Briefcase program, and that she thought Houser would be a great candidate for it. Although the class had been in session for a couple of weeks, and although she lived in Waynesboro at the time, Houser decided to join.

The best part of the program, she said, was the guest speakers. She especially remembers Paul Yates, Gordonsville branch manager of Woodforest National Bank (which also has branch locations in area Walmarts), who opened a checking and savings account for every program participant—the checking accounts each had $9.50, and the savings accounts had $10. Beyond the money, Houser appreciated Yates’ tips on how to manage money, and even how to use the accounts. Walmart also gave each attendee a gift card with $10. Houser used hers to put gas in her car so she could keep attending the sessions.

Houser plans to open her own lawn care business. But first she needs seed money for items such as a hitch for her car, a trailer to house her equipment and tools like a lawn mower. To get the money, she wants to make and sell wooden boxes for kindling. She’s bought the boards and nails, but is now looking at ways to trade items or work for tools—such as an electric saw—to make the boxes.

Houser looks at her time being homeless not as something to pity her for, but something that has made her stronger. She uses the analogy of weathering a storm, and how you can be changed by the experience for having endured it. She says she has met homeless people throughout her life who see themselves as victims, and it’s those people who are difficult to help, because they are not actively doing anything to get out of their situation. She says action is paramount—which is why she is confident she’ll have her lawn care business operational by the spring. She works every day at getting what she needs to move forward, she says.

“It will happen,” she says. “There is no shame in being homeless; the shame is staying there.”

Continuing education

Blanton says the graduation ceremony in December was bittersweet. The participants were proud of themselves but were sad to see the course come to an end. But she says she and Durovy are committed to the group for the next year. Everyone is still active in developing his or her business—Blanton says she receives calls, texts or e-mails almost every day. They let her know how they are doing, or how the business is going—just recently someone reached out with questions about a potential logo.

Each received a special gift when the class ended.

“They don’t have anywhere to hang a certificate, so we created these 3-by-4-inch certificates with inspirational sayings on the back and a certificate of completion on the front,” Blanton says. “We laminated them and three-hole punched them so they could hang them from their backpacks.”

Blanton and Durovy have also learned a lot, and plan to make the course a little different the next time around.

“We’re trying to get a spot on the Downtown Mall,” Blanton says, “where our entrepreneurs can sell their wares. Instead of all these homeless people sitting around with cardboard, you can go to a stand and say, ‘Tell me your story,’ and you can buy their products.”

This experience has also taught the pair that the program needs to be longer. The idea is to extend it to an eight-week boot camp, followed by a six- to 12-month follow-up program. Blanton says approximately 30 people have said they are interested in a future program, and Wood says she has been approached by almost a dozen people at The Haven for more information.

Blanton says there’s no concrete start date for the next program. She and Durovy are still waiting on funding, and they both have full-time jobs. Blanton is a ghostwriter and Durovy is president and partner of the Post Institute.

Right now, Suitcase to Briefcase has a number of sponsors, such as Best Western Hotels and Dollar Shave Club, Blanton says. They’ve been in talks with Piedmont Virginia Community College about scholarships and free classes for course participants. And there is talk of expanding the program to different cities.

“Being homeless is not who you are, it’s where you are,” Blanton says. “You are who you think you are, and you can do anything you put your mind to.”

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