It was a miracle from heaven, Jennifer DeLeón says when she describes the way her community helped her family find a place to live, after they were forced to leave the home in Davidson where they had been for 10 years.
Due to various circumstances such as medical expenses, immigration procedure costs, and family emergencies, Jennifer and her family were late several times in paying the rent of their apartment at Oak Hill Apartment Homes. Although each time they got behind in rent, they ended up paying it (plus a fine), and although they no longer owed a penny to the apartment complex, their lease was not renewed. The family had to leave the home on .
Race against time
Even though the two-bedroom apartment was very small for Jennifer, her husband, and their four daughters, the family had to adapt because living there had multiple benefits, mainly the affordable rent of 650 per month.
In addition, the apartment was designed for the disabled, which helped Jennifer, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. On top of that, the family was happy with their 11 and 13-year-old daughters’ schools, as well as their 4-year-old daughter’s Pre-K program, which is free and close to home: La Escuelita San Alban.
Moving meant new schools and higher expenses for the family. According to Apartment List, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Davidson is 1,025 per month.
We started looking for an apartment, but we couldn’t find anything. Everything was too expensive. I was distressed that the weeks passed, and we could not find a place to live. I cried thinking that we would have to sleep in the car with the girls, DeLeón recalls.
A Mecklenburg County report found that about 51,000 housing units are required to meet the needs of people who earn 80 or less of the area median income. The greatest need is for people with even lower incomes, as is the case with Jennifer.
We talked to many people as we were looking for help. Some recommended that we stay and face eviction to buy time, but we knew that this would bring us problems in the future when we were ready to look for housing, Jennifer told La Noticia.
A beacon of hope
A few days before they had to leave Oak Hill Apartment Homes, Pat Shaw, director of La Escuelita San Alban, learned of the situation facing the family of one of her students.
When I found out what was happening to them, I started calling people from the church. We formed a group with different skills to try to help them. As time passed, we saw that we could not find a suitable place. It was then that I found out about a friend who had a house for rent, which was practically destroyed by her previous tenants. My friend told me that she was not prepared to repair the house, but that she could not rent it in the condition it was in. I proposed that she allow the family to stay there and that we would repair it together, Shaw says.
Members of the school, parishioners of three churches (St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Davidson United Methodist Church, and the Church Pentecostes Monte de Sion in Cornelius), and Jennifer’s family, got down to work.
Building a home
The house was destroyed inside. The walls were cracked, and all the cold air came in. The bathroom did not work. Neither did the bathtub. The kitchen had no floor and there was no stove. The first nights, the six of us had to sleep in a single room with an electric heater because the cold was terrible, but we knew that this was an opportunity and that we had to fight for it, DeLeón recalls.
Church members donated construction materials and paint, and they volunteered their time. Among the volunteers was Jeremías Coreas. After finishing the day at his construction job, he arrived at the house and volunteered from 6:00pm until midnight, then got up at 5:30am to go back to work.
Really, this is what the word of God tells us, to join and help each other. That is why we are here-- to help where we can-- because together we know that things are done faster. It is a privilege to help, Coreas said.
The family also received furniture, beds, clothes, and heaters. Shaw spoke with her son, who is a member of A Giving Spirit Foundation (AGSF), a group of young people in the Lake Norman area dedicated to helping local mothers facing chronic illnesses. They raised 1,200 to buy a washer and dryer for the family.
The new house
The new house is located about five minutes from where we were before. The girls are happy. They have their own space because the house is very big. My husband also feels more secure. We know that if we manage to get through this together, the rest will be easier, Jennifer says.
The family is paying 700 per month in rent. The owner of the house, after seeing all the work done to improve the home in such a short time, gave them a discount on the first month’s rent.
People of different denominations helped us. All the requests I made to God were heard. God showed us his love through other people. My sister surprised me by bringing my mother to the new house on New Year’s. It was very exciting for me, but overwhelming and hard to process, because of how happy we were, said DeLeón.
About two dozen people were involved, people with different skills and connections, who were able to help for an hour on each occasion, but collectively we put in many hours. Helping others does not mean that you have to give up your life for a cause, but perhaps only half an hour, and that can make a difference, Shaw added.
We got closer as a family. We got more involved in the town where we live, with people we already knew but we had never talked to. The door opened to other people, to other friendships. It has awakened in me the desire to help others who are in the same situation, concludes DeLeón.
This story was produced by the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of six media companies working together in an effort launched by the Solutions Journalism Network and supported by funding from Knight Foundation.