Alexandria Resident Advocates for Funding that Changed His Life

Page updated on Jul 23, 2021 at 11:54 AM

Alexandria Resident Advocates for Funding that Changed His Life


Michael JohnsonJuly 23, 2021--Alexandria resident Michael Johnson was the first person to step up to the podium at the July 6 Alexandria City Council meeting, the first in-person meeting since the pandemic began.

He was grateful to be out in public and around people again—and for the opportunity to share his thoughts about how federal funding available through the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act should be spent in the city.

ARP is a $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package designed to help the U.S. recovery from the economic and health effects of the pandemic and includes aid to states and cities.

For Johnson, it’s personal. How those funds are spent will have a direct impact on his life.

“Over the past year, I’ve had many obstacles in my life,” Johnson began, “including being homeless with a dog living in my car for two years, going through open heart surgery just a few months ago, and surviving the pandemic.”

After suffering a work injury, Johnson ended up living in his car. He tried a shelter, but they wouldn’t allow him to bring his dog, and his fixed income of social security and a small retirement wasn’t enough to rent even a room.

“It’s not enough for food, gas, bills, rent,” says Homeless Outreach Coordinator Krysta Pearce, who met Johnson at the start of the pandemic. “Those things were out of his reach. It is hard for people in his situation to do anything more than focus on surviving.”

When the pandemic hit, the City allocated federal funding provided through the CARES Act, a former coronavirus relief package, to rent hotel rooms for community members experiencing homelessness—and that was a gamechanger for Johnson, says Pearce.

Johnson moved in with his dog and the hotel contracted with him to help with the maintenance of the grounds for a small fee. Pearce also helped him get basic assistance, like health insurance and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for food. She also helped him set up a doctor’s appointment, which resulted in a surgery to address several blocked arteries.

When the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA) was able to provide rent assistance, also funded through the CARES Act, Johnson moved into an apartment in the West End.

“When you see someone have their own space and not have to fight for survival anymore, it is amazing,” says Pearce.

Johnson’s story isn’t uncommon.

“Experiencing homelessness can really happen to anyone,” says Pearce, who’s encountered people from all walks of life experiencing homelessness.

“Everyone’s story is unique,” says Pearce. “Mr. Johnson suffered from a work injury, and it snowballed from there. Homelessness can also stem from individuals who were taking care of an elderly parent in the home who then passed away and they got behind on the mortgage payments. Or individuals who have left a relationship. I’ve also met younger individuals who, for one reason or another, got kicked out of their home and have nowhere to go.”

And that’s where the funding like ARP can make a difference, says Pearce.

Over the past year and half, Pearce says her program assisted 19 community members who had been experiencing homelessness for over a year acquire housing through ARHA rental assistance.

The pandemic also brought opportunities to partner with community organizations and local congregations.

“Collaboration with the community is so important,” says Pearce. “Our community partners are so effective and we work well together to fill the gaps and get people the resources they need. People in Alexandria have been amazing to my clients.”

Those partnerships and funding priorities that formed during the pandemic will be just as important going forward.

In the council meeting, Johnson shared why continuing funding for things like the Grocery Gift Card Program, rental assistance and affordable housing is critical.

“Everything is coming back to normal, and the cost of living continues to go up and the rent keeps increasing every year,” said Johnson.

Johnson asked Council to prioritize ARP and other City funds to provide access to food assistance programs to support residents like him who struggle day-to-day and additional affordable housing for low-income families that is dignified.

“Please invest these funds into programs and services that will directly support community members who are also trying to survive and recover from the pandemic,” Johnson concluded.

Johnson turned to walk back to his seat, then stopped and turned back.

“One more quick thing,” he said to the Council members. “Krysta Pearce. She doesn’t get enough recognition and she’s actually the one who saved my life.”

Johnson’s voice wavered. “I’d be dead right now if it wasn’t for her getting me to the doctor,” he continued. “I had two 100% blocked arteries and an 80% blocked artery. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here today, and I want everybody in here to know her name because she saved my life.”

When Pearce learned what Johnson had said, she was filled with emotion. For Pearce, it is Johnson and the other community members she encounters day-to-day who are the inspiration. They are the reason she loves her job.

“They are amazing people in hard situations, and they still keep fighting,” she says. “They are survivors and so, so resilient.”

To watch Johnson’s full remarks, watch an online recording of the meeting. Learn more about City programs and services for community members experiencing homelessness and how you can help prevent homelessness and support those facing a housing crisis.