Latoya Caldwell could scarcely speak. She sobbed, shedding tears of joy.
"Oh, my God," she cried. "This has been a long time coming."
"Home for the holidays" took on even greater meaning during a special presentation Thursday, December 19 as Latoya and her children, as well as another family who had endured being homeless were presented the keys to their new houses. The formerly vacant houses, which had become magnets for criminal activity, were restored through Jackson County's Constructing Futures program.
"What do you say we change some people's lives here today?" Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders said to those gathered at the Nutter Ivanhoe Neighborhood Center in Kansas City.
Moments later, he noted that Latoya, a single mother of four (ages 2 to 12), hadn't been invited to the center as part of the ongoing process to determine if her family would be selected to receive a Constructing Futures home. He stunned her with the news that the process was over: "Here are the keys to your new home?"
Earlier in the day in private, Sanders also told another single mother and her children that they, too, had been chosen to receive a home, fully remodeled and move-in ready. (Neither that woman nor children's identities are being publicly revealed because domestic violence had forced them into homelessness.)
"Think about what it means to those families who are homeless, particularly this time of the year," Sanders said. "Think about them spending their Christmas behind a dumpster."
He added, "There are dozens and dozens of deserving families in need. Unfortunately, there are only two house to give away today. We wish there could be 200."
Latoya Caldwell survived growing up in a crack house—in which each male upon reaching adolescence was either imprisoned, a gang member or dead.
"Think about what that means, everything she has seen in her life," Sanders pointed out.
Domestic violence also played a significant role in Latoya, her two sons and two daughters no longer having a place to call home. They moved into a relative's unheated attic.
"Think of spending Christmas Day in that attic--how cold it would be," Sanders said.
Instead, Latoya and her children will be living in their newly remodeled house in the 1700 block of 35th Street in Kansas City.
They toured the house immediately after accepting the key from Sanders.
"This year was so rough," said Caldwell. "The last couple of years have been rough for me and my kids. But we're all together and about to be together in our new home."
All of Caldwell's children have health issues. Three have special needs and are receiving therapy. Caldwell currently works six days a week at her job with a local Wendy’s. While homeless, they have received assistance from Sheffield Place, a non-profit organization with the mission "to empower mothers and their children to heal from their trauma and help them become self-sufficient."
The other mother receiving a home December 19 diligently participated in Community LINC programs to assist homeless families. She stabilized her budget, paid off her debts and currently works two jobs, one part-time and the other as a customer service representative. Furthermore, she recently completed a small business ownership class offered through the Family Conservancy and is saving toward starting her own business.
Jackson County Legislator Bishop James D. Tindall (2nd District) described how that woman's daughter reacted to being given a home. "If you could have seen the young lady's face...," he said. "She cried because she was so happy, so elated that her family would no longer be homeless."
The not-for-profit Community LINC offers homeless families transitional housing with programs that focus on budgeting, healthy lifestyles, counseling and life-skills training.
In keeping with Constructing Future's mission (see One Program Addressing Three Important Issues), Connections to Success (CtS) provided the labor for remodeling both houses. The non-profit organization works to give those who are unemployed, underemployed or were formerly incarcerated on-the-job training to the acquire the skills for a brighter future.
Rodney, one of the workers on the two 2013 Constructing Futures projects, was already finding some success as his hands-on experience through the program had helped him land recent job interviews. Connections to Success Director Brad Lambert thanked the Jackson County staff involved in helping assure the two projects in 2013 were completed.
"Putting these projects together requires months of planning and preparation," he said, "and lots of coordination and lots of perseverance. They have a lot of moving parts. Sometimes the parts move. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes they move in the wrong direction. This one was no different. Through [the staff's] tireless efforts, they've really made a difference."
Then Lambert had a message specifically for the two families receiving their new homes: "May these homes become important parts of your future and sources of treasured memories over the years."
As she clung to her 12-year-old daughter, Aerianna, and grasped her new house key, Latoya envisioned a home-sweet-home future as she looked at her children and said, "We're going to do this. This is for you all, my babies. I love you all."
Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders launched the Constructing Futures program in 2008 to address three key issues:
1) Rehabbing vacant homes that have not only become dilapidated, but also magnets for criminal activity. Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council Executive Director Margaret May noted that the neighborhood has a 40 percent vacancy rate. The two houses remodeled in 2013 through Constructing Futures are in the Ivanhoe Neighborhood.
"Vacant houses are really a curse to the neighborhood," May said. "We are so glad Jackson County is providing us with this opportunity to restore houses that are structurally strong and make these good places where good people can live."
2) Providing on-the-job training doing basic remodeling so that individuals who were formerly incarcerated can find employment. Sanders, as a former prosecutor, understands how crucial being employed is in preventing recidivism. According to the Missouri Department of Corrections, 73 percent of those former inmates who successfully complete parole, without returning to prison, are successfully employed.
"Through Constructing Futures, we are giving these individuals a leg up," Sanders said, "so they can become productive members of our society."
3) Setting the stage for a brighter future through providing a home to a family who has recently struggled with homelessness.
"We are going to continue ending homelessness one family at a time," pledged Jackson County Legislator Bishop James D. Tindall (2nd District), chairman of the county's Housing Resources Commission.