Standing in his kitchen, tossing French fries in glistening oil, Joe Perez is at home.
He moved into this apartment last week with his wife, Theresa, and their four kids. A couch sits in the living room, and toys are scattered about. He cooks dinner every night on a full stove in the kitchen.
Cooking like this wasn’t an option two years ago.
This 1,000-square-foot apartment in upper York County is a mansion compared to the motel room the family squeezed into for a year.
“It’s bad when you got to share the kitchen with three, four other people you don’t even know,” Joe Perez said. “And then to walk away from your food and come back and not know if someone peeped in it or threw something in it? It was hard.”
They were one of the more than 450 families considered precariously housed by Williamsburg-James City County Schools standards in 2015. That includes anyone living in a motel, hotel, car or campground, or doubling-up with another family because of economic hardship.
In 2014, the Perez family was evicted and landed in a motel. Six people shared three full-size mattresses.
“It was just depressing, watching like all those families go and we were just there, for like a year,” 16-year-old Brianna Perez said. “People came and left, and that’s just how it was.”
A year later, they entered the Home for Good Program through United Way of Greater Williamsburg.
On March 31, 2016, they signed a lease in their own names.
Home for Good
Home for Good is, as the title suggests, all about getting precariously housed people back into stable homes.
“We take people who are precariously housed, then we place them in housing with one of our landlords and then we do intensive case management,” program manager Amber Martens said. “We have them determine what areas are at risk that they need to work on, that could be mental, physical health, budgeting, transportation, affordable daycare, or could be relationships. We set personal goals and that’s how we monitor our progress.”
Case management involves giving families the tools to budget their income, to pay off prior debts and to move up in their careers, she said. The program subsidizes a family’s rent and bills until they can afford housing costs on their own.
United Way launched the program in July 2015 in a partnership with five landlords who agreed to house these families, regardless of their credit or ability to pay, and the rent was backed by the program.
In July 2016 the program received funding from the Williamsburg Health Foundation and has applied for that funding again for next year, Martens said.
On average, Home for Good has the resources — funding and staff — to help 20 families. In 2016 they bumped that number to 24, Martens said.
But she said that barely helps meet the need.
“We have turned down 60 families (in 2016) — some didn’t meet the requirements. A lot of them, we just didn’t have the space,” Martens said.
Landlords offer space
Scott Mowry is one of the landlords Home for Good partners with. He’s opening up his sixth unit to the program this June, out of 13 total he operates in Williamsburg, James City and York counties.
“I’ve lived in Williamsburg most of my life and you just don’t think about homelessness,” Mowry said. “I was reluctant at first because frankly the people going into these units have bad credit or other issues, as a landlord I would vet those people out.”
But they surprised him; the tenants have taken care of his units well, he said.
“These aren’t bad tenants, they haven’t done anything on purpose, they just look bad on paper,” Mowry said.
He gives Home for Good tenants a 10 percent discount on those rentals. It’s his way of giving back, he said.
Attaining independence is the end goal, Martens said. The Perez family hasn’t graduated yet, but are very close.
Theresa Perez was promoted at the grocery store she works in; Joe Perez was named employee of the quarter at the hotel he does maintenance for.
Joe said he’d work three jobs before landing back in a motel.
Now that they have financial independence, their next goal is to clean up their credit and buy a house.
To own a home
That’s Leatrice Nelson’s goal: home ownership.
Four years ago, Nelson came back to her South Carolina home to find her husband had left for his next military assignment — without her or their 19-year-old son with autism.
Left with next-to-nothing, she and Deotis moved in with her daughter, who was stationed at Langley Air Force Base.
“Once you go through that your mindset it like ‘OK, I have to work, I have to work’ and then you put on the back burner doing things for yourself. The only thing you’re focusing on is working,” Nelson said, and with a chuckle added, “I was working almost three jobs at one point.”
Instead of sticking with three minimum wage jobs, Nelson found help from the Salvation Army and then Home for Good. She studied to be a certified nursing assistant and now earns more at one job than she did before.
She said she learned not everything is a necessity, like cable.
Her living room, in an apartment she leases without support, is full of furniture. Deotis’ high school diploma is propped up on an end table, the TV has cartoons on. Ivy is spilling out over a pot in the corner.
As her finances improved, so did her confidence. She graduated Home for Good in March and applied for the James City County First Time Homebuyers Program last Thursday.
“Since my income in a lot better and things are actually coming together it’s like ‘okay.’ Right now the goal is the house,” Nelson said. “I’m showing (Deotis) pictures and things like that, he’s excited.”
Nelson knows what her house will look like — a one-story ranch style, with a big porch and a rocking chair.
“Got to at least have that,” Nelson said. “I am a southern girl.”
Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.