Tiny Homes Fulfill Big Dreams

   

Owning your own home, it’s part of the American dream, right? Not if you’re homeless. But in Detroit, one fearless woman, Rev. Faith Fowler is making that dream come true.

The nonprofit, Cass Community Social Services (CCSS), run by Rev. Fowler, initiated the Cass Community Tiny Homes as the first project of its kind to offer rent-to-own properties to those on the lowest rung of the economic spectrum. Fowler started the project to give people who would otherwise never have an opportunity to own a home, just that, a home of their own.

“We were looking for a way to help homeless and other low-income people gain an asset,” Fowler explained over email.

 

You’ve probably seen the tiny homes, perhaps on a trailer behind a pickup truck or maybe on TV. They’re cute, they’re cool and they serve a purpose. And while the Detroit Tiny Homes are like what you may have seen, they are also atypical. The Cass Community Tiny Homes (CCTH) is the first to offer rent-to-own properties.

Here’s how it works: CCTH finds people in shelters and through neighborhood canvassing who would like to move into a home, but don’t have the financial wherewithal to do so. I mean, these folks are homeless. Who thinks about owning a home when you don’t know where you’re going to sleep tonight? For people who can’t qualify for a regular mortgage, much less have a down payment, but have a steady source of income, the tiny house project offers a solution to both homelessness and rebuilding a life. Prospective residents must apply. Then the organization begins a review process, culminating in an interview. Once accepted, the tenants start a yearly lease, paying rent no more than a third of their monthly salary.

Each unit rents for $1 per square foot, which comes to $250 – $400 a month for a 250-400 square-foot house. Because the tiny homes are built for energy efficiency, utilities aren’t all that expensive; they usually run about $35 a month. After renting for three years, tenants will be offered a land contract to “rent to own” their homes within four years.  Could CCTH shorten the process? Sure they could. The lengthy process is intentional and meant to help residents develop financial discipline about paying their bills on time. No one wants to see them lose their houses to unpaid water bills or taxes.

After seven years of paying rent, the lease converts to ownership. Sounds easy, but there are requirements. The renters must attend monthly financial coaching and home-ownership classes.

At this writing, the Detroit Tiny Homes community has enough property to build 25 single-family homes ranging from 250 – 400 square feet. Seven tiny homes are currently occupied and six more are in the process of being built.

One of the most heartwarming aspects of the project is that the tiny homes border the CCSS campus. This is significant because unlike many low-income housing projects, residents live side-by-side, mixed in with the local community rather than apart from it. It’s not just houses, albeit tiny ones, it’s a community.

Ultimately there will be 25 different house styles in Phase One for singles and couples, a different design on each lot. Phase Two will be for families and a commercial strip. And as the photos illustrate, unlike most shelters, these residences aren’t bleak or cheerless. Each one sports a beautiful façade, chock full lots of details and a unique architectural style.

While you might assume that the project is government-funded, it’s not. The development is funded entirely by private donations and foundations, including the Ford Motor Fund, the RNR Foundation, and the McGregor Fund.

If successful, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be, these tiny housing developments could change everything for Detroit’s low-income families. Where once there was despair, these families can settle into a life they only dreamed about – the American Dream of owning property that they can pass down to their children and future generations. It doesn’t get any better than that.

For more information please click here.

 

 

Traveling Stories Build Literacy One Book at a Time

traveling-stories-storytent

If you live in the San Diego area, or some other regions, and you’re a frequent visitor to Farmers Markets you may have noticed a tent full of children listening intently to an adult or another child reading a story from a book. If you stepped closer you probably saw the mesmerized looks on the children’s faces as they soaked in the words and tales taking them to places they can only imagine.

Many of the children who visit the StoryTents are refugees whose families fled their war-torn home countries; children like seven year-old Abdullah and his four year-old brother, Abdulramah, who escaped Iraq in the fall of 2015.  Such children are fairly commonplace in this nirvana on the sea. San Diego absorbs approximately 3,000 refugees a year, many from Iraq seeking a better life, a safer life for their families.

traveling-stroies-abdullahWhen the boys’ family arrived in the U.S. the children didn’t know a word of English. And it didn’t help that the boys were exceedingly shy. The boys’ mom said that leaving friends and family in Iraq was hard on the brothers, sadness often filled their days. She told a friend who had also escaped Iraq years earlier about her boys’ difficulty with adjusting to life in America. The friend told Mrs. Aleze about the StoryTent at the Farmer’s Market in El Cajon, a small city east of San Diego. Mrs. Aleze took them to the Thursday market, found the tent and the boys sat down to listen to a story being read. For the first time since their arrival on American shores she observed a spark of happiness. No matter that they didn’t understand English, the boys were hooked. After that first visit, their mom made sure they attended every week and their perseverance has paid off. Over the past year Abdullah not only learned to speak and read English, he now insists on reading aloud to the adult volunteer and the other children.

So who started these StoryTents? The literacy program is the brain child of San Diegan, Emily Moberly. When she was 22 she taught English in a bilingual high school in Honduras. She discovered that the kids didn’t read books; she soon figured out why. There traveling-stories-emily-moberlywere few, if any, resources for kids to procure books. The town had just one insufficient library that rarely opened and a small, equally insufficient bookstore. On a visit home she bought as many books as she could stuff into her luggage, returned to the Honduran school and started a library. Over the next few weeks and months she watched the students connect with the books; she observed them fall in love with reading. Emily returned home and never forgot how unlocking the world of books to non-readers opened up a new chapter in kids’ lives, exposing them to new ideas, observations and insights. She decided to do the same in her home city, though not as a permanent structure. In 2010 she founded Traveling Stories as a 501c3 nonprofit operating primarily in farmers markets. Why tents?

“A tent allows us to be mobile and to fit in easily at a farmer’s market or other community hotspot. We want to make reading a part of everyday life,” Emily says. “We want to make reading more visible in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Kids in these neighborhoods have access to books through libraries and schools, but still the fact remains that 82% of low-income children in America are not reading at grade level by 4th grade.”

Emily is definitely onto something. According to the Literacy Project Foundation 50% of adults cannot read a book written at eighth grade level. 45 million adults are functionally illiterate. Among the 20 highest income countries the U.S. ranked 12th in literacy. That’s pretty astounding for a country as big and as sophisticated as the U.S. To combat illiteracy in adults, it must start with children; Emily gets it.

“Traveling Stories helps kids develop strong literacy skills, confidence in their ability to read out loud and a love of reading,” she says.

She chose the farmers markets because she saw that kids needed one-on-one reading support with people who love to read. She noticed children accompanying their parents to travelling-stories-taythe local farmers markets and decided to try out a tent at the City Heights farmer’s market in 2011. It was a huge success. Now they’re in markets across San Diego, in Long Beach, Turlock, and Canada with plans to expand to more communities in San Diego over the next five years which Emily surmises will enable them to reach 5,000 children, turning them into better readers. After that they plan to go nationwide.

Emily spends much of her time raising funds as it costs about $20,000 to operate each tent per year. Between private and corporate donations, special events, sponsorships, grants, merchandise sales on their website and in-kind donations, so far they’re making ends meet and building for the future.

“That’s how we’re able to serve 40-plus kids every week at every StoryTent,” she says.

These days the StoryTents pretty much attract their own following, occupying the same spots week after week, making it easy to find them. Plus there’s an incentive. When children visit a tent, they pick out a book and read it aloud to the adult volunteer who traveling-stories-girlsfollows up by asking questions that help the child build reading comprehension and crucial thinking skills. The children earn a “book buck” for every book they read. For particularly long or complex books they can barter with the volunteer for extra bucks, which can be used to “buy” prizes (like the in-kind donations). Not only do the kids learn invaluable reading and comprehension skills, they’re also learning basic finance. Earn a buck, spend a buck. Pretty basic stuff and pretty darn smart.

Interested in visiting a StoryTent or volunteering? Click here here to learn more.

 

Making It Through The Night

Chris Meyer is not having a good night. Tossing and turning, reliving nightmarish flashes, sometimes even uncomfortable night sweats—all a part of the PTSD which accompanies so many returning service men and women. If left unchecked, an alarming number fall into a depression which, tragically, ends for far too many in suicide.

But Chris is fortunate. Not only is he receiving good medical attention, but he has the constant attention of Jade, his partner, confidant, and safe to say, his love. When Chris is having another debilitating nightmare, Jade is right there to wake him from his torture, to assure him everything is all right and he is safe.

MITTN ChrisYou may be wondering what would be the best way to wake a PTSD suffering person without compounding their fright. Jade has perfected the process—first she nudges Chris a few times with her nose, then her long tongue starts bathing his face. Chris wakes up quickly; the terror abated.

You see, Jade is a service dog—a loving Golden Retriever/Shepherd mix, who was painstakingly trained by Graham Bloem, founder of Shelter to Soldier. But providing care-giving dogs to veterans is only part of the Shelter to Soldier story.

MITTN Jade at the park

Graham scours the many local shelters looking for 40 – 50 pound dogs who he can determine have the temperament and intelligence to respond to training as a service dog. MITTN GrahamAfter checking them for optimal health and getting a head x-ray, many of the dogs he tests don’t make the cut. Many of those who do test well were precariously existing on the euthanasia list because no one wanted to adopt them. Graham then saves them and begins their training.

You may rightly say that this process saves two lives at once: the dog’s and the veteran’s. Win-win! But there’s more to the story.

This isn’t one of those places that just finds a dog, then a veteran, and says “Here you go!” No, Shelter to Soldier spends several thousand dollars per dog for medical care and housing during the 12 to 18 months it takes to thoroughly train them as service dogs.

The veterans go through a careful screening process as well, starting with a doctor’s recommendation to the initial telephone interviews. Then the veteran visits the training facility to see how they interact with dogs—and vice versa. When Graham makes a suitable match, he trains the dog to be sensitive to those issues which plague the veteran.

According to 1st Sgt. Tomas Mondares, his dog Sandy (a female Shepherd/Labrador mix), senses when he gets anxious from seeing shadows after dark. Sometimes he gets easily irritated. That’s when she will side up next to him, ‘herding’ him away from the stimulus and de-escalating the situation. It’s like a friend reminding him that “it’s OK Tomas —just chill”.

MITTN Tomas & Sandy gradBut the training isn’t just for the dogs. No, Graham requires that the veteran actively participate in the training a couple of times a week over a period of months. That way the veteran becomes certified as a dog handler, and the dog intuitively learns about the needs of the veteran. At the end of training there is a graduation ceremony for each veteran and dog, concluding with certificates of completion and competency.

For Chris Meyer, knowing that Jade senses when he is in dire need, and has been taught to push a button to administer medication provides great peace of mind. For Tomas Mondares, who received severe injuries to his back and hip during a deployment, having Sandy help him get up when he can’t on his own is crucial.

Graham served a stint in a pet nutrition store, and then as a dog trainer at a large animal shelter. That’s when he discovered his innate talent for connecting with dogs and training them to be caregivers, and Shelter to Soldier began as a non-profit 2012. To date they have placed nine dogs with veterans, with eight more dogs now in training.

According to Graham’s wife, Kyrie, who takes care of the operating details of the organization, their objective is to train 20 dogs at a time. Clearly there’s a huge need; in fact there’s so many veterans in need of service dogs that they can’t keep up. Until they can get into a larger facility they can’t reach that twenty-in-training goal.

MITTN Jade Chris GradShelter to Soldier calls San Diego County home, where 1.2 million active duty, veterans and families of veterans live. Of the active and veteran ranks, a vast number suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) due to their time in combat zones. Shelter to Soldier does not to treat the veterans—that’s left to the medical institutions. Graham’s approach focuses on preparing the dogs to perform care-giving functions that aid each veteran. He understands that dogs are non-judgmental and give unconditional love; the perfect candidates for the job.

After each dog has been trained and goes home with the veteran, the veteran can call Graham anytime with questions and give him an update on how they’re doing. Shelter to Soldier holds events and get-togethers for the veterans and dogs, as well as refresher courses and further training anytime a need arises.

MITTN Sandy & Tomas 2Does it work? Before he entered the program Tomas Mondares felt he was in a dark place, and just wanted to stay shut in by himself. Now with Sandy he feels so much better that they go out more often, enjoying life together. In fact, he claims that without Graham and Sandy, he would be in a much darker place—or maybe not here at all.

Chris Meyer looked into getting  a service dog from five other programs before settling on Shelter to Soldier. He found StS to be the only one that completely vetted each veteran and each dog’s capabilities to provide the best possible fit. As Chris continues in his rehabilitation, he says he wants to give back to Graham and do some volunteer work with the organization.

How did Graham Bloem decide on this path? Is he a veteran? Is he from a military family? Neither. He was born in South Africa, and immigrated to the US through Canada, later becoming a US citizen. He has never been in the military. He did, however, come to realize that he was really good at training dogs. With all the current and former military in the county having needs, his destiny was obvious.

Graham also runs West Coast K9, a professional dog training business to pay some bills, but the non-profit Shelter to Soldier operation is a labor of love and charity. The challenge to the Board of Directors is how to expand the operation to train more dogs, necessitating a larger facility.

Saving dogs, helping veterans, by someone who immigrated here—how’s that for goodness personified?

MITTN Jade

Tomas says that “family” is defined by love, not necessarily by blood. Using that criteria, then it is safe to say that Sandy is definitely family to Tomas, as Jade is to Chris. The unconditional love these family members give to their human counterparts is their own Goodness Principle.

You can learn more about Shelter to Soldier here.

A Home of Her Own

Diana, Proudly making her own way

Dreams come in all forms. Some people want a puppy, others want a carefree life, a good job, to be thin and never gain weight, or maybe riches and fame. Other people merely want a home to call their own, a happy ending.
A young woman named Diana got a bad break in life, a seriously bad break. She fell from a bed when she was a newborn and suffered a brain seizure as a result of the fall. That started a cascade of problems. These days Diana suffers from short term memory loss, which means she requires constant, albeit patient, prompts and suffers from mild retardation. Not a pretty word, but that is her life.
Diana is 28 years old. Not really that old, but old in suffering, old in how society turns a blind eye to someone who doesn’t fit the mold. She fell through the cracks and until a few years ago no one really took the time to see a person that needed help.
Five years ago she lived with her grandparents, her father and uncles. She didn’t have a job, had no income and felt she was a burden on her family. She wore the same clothes for years on end, because she lacked the funds to buy herself new ones. Then her fortunes changed. She was referred by the San Diego Regional Center to Toward Maximum Independence, Inc. (TMI) an agency that provides assistance and support to children and adults with disabilities. She was assigned to Keltoum, an Independent Living Case Manager. From their first meeting Keltoum jumped into action, assisting Diana in applying for health insurance, food stamps and social security benefits. Within a month she received her health insurance coverage and food stamps. Social Security proved more difficult; they denied her benefits. TMI kept applying and Social Security kept denying her. Finally in 2014 TMI appealed the SS decision and she was granted her benefits.
Diana was elated. Recalling that day she said, “I felt independent, free, I would have my own money, health benefits and I could support myself. I didn’t feel that I would be a burden on my family members.”
TMI helped her to save money so she could move into her own place. That wasn’t so easy. Due to her limited income and the high cost of housing in San Diego she couldn’t afford to rent an apartment. Diana didn’t want to continue feeling like a burden though so started paying rent to her grandparents and contributing to the grocery budget. Then in September of 2015 the family situation soured and despite her best efforts she no longer felt welcome in her grandparents’ home. Her problems at home started affecting her work performance (she had gotten a job at Goodwill) making her emotionally unstable. Just when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse TMI found her a roommate situation and in October 2015 she moved into her new home. Now we’re getting close to that happy ending; her story doesn’t end there however. Diana explains:
“The area where I moved to was new to me and I was not familiar with their buses. My Case Manager worked with me tirelessly, and trained me on the bus route, weekdays, weekends, late at night, until I felt comfortable taking the bus to and from work on my own.”
She says that her goal now is to move in to her own apartment. She’s pretty excited about that. TMI found her an apartment in a new development that will be ready by April 2016. Soon, very soon, Diana will be living on her own for the first time in her life. Her journey to independence has almost reached its end; however she realizes that she could never have come this far by herself.
“I don’t know where I would be without TMI. When I felt alone and desperate the most, they were there to tell me that I am okay and that I am not alone.” Diana says that they changed her life; they gave her hope, independence, and made her dreams come true. That’s all anyone can hope for. Cheers to Diana for keeping her dream alive and living it!

To learn more about TMI at their website, click here; and on Face Book, click here.