By LESLIE COLLINS
January, 1, 2014
When Latoya Caldwell stepped inside her new home, tears rolled down her face.
Through the tears, she laughed.
“This is our house!” she said. “Thank you. Thank you, God. Oh, my goodness! My heart is just filled with joy today.”
A banner greeted Caldwell and her children in the furnished living room: “Welcome Home! Caldwell Family”.
A brightly lit Christmas tree served as the centerpiece and a multitude of wrapped presents sat underneath the tree.
“I didn’t have enough money to buy gifts this year, so to see the tree with all these gifts is just awesome,” she said.
Caldwell and her five children, ranging in ages from 11 months to 12 years old, had been living in the unheated attic of a family member’s home. Before that, Caldwell and her children lived in Sheffield Place for a year, a homeless shelter for mothers and their children. Caldwell moved to Sheffield Place to detach herself from an abusive relationship.
Receiving the three-bedroom, one bath home in the Ivanhoe neighborhood came as a surprise to Caldwell, who received the news as she walked into a room filled with cameras and members of the press at the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Center Dec. 19. Earlier, Caldwell had been told she made it into the top three for candidates eligible to receive a home through the Jackson County Constructing Futures program. Only one of those families would be chosen, and Caldwell thought she was coming to the center for a final interview.
Instead, Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders announced that Santa Claus had come early and handed Caldwell the keys to her new furnished home.
Established by Sanders in 2008, the Constructing Futures program addresses three issues: vacant homes, homelessness and unskilled and unemployed individuals.
Vacant homes can become a haven for criminal and drug activity, lowering the property values of surrounding homes, said Sanders. Through Constructing Futures, those homes are rehabilitated and given to deserving families. The program also provides on-the-job training and uses previously incarcerated individuals and those lacking a skill in a certain trade to rehabilitate the homes.
“They’re learning how to do things with their hands that will help get them a job and be employed,” said Margaret May of the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council. “Being employed means not having to go back to where they were incarcerated.”
For the Ivanhoe neighborhood, the number of vacant homes is an issue and the neighborhood is working diligently to reduce that number, May said.
“We have about a 40 percent vacancy rate,” May said. “The vacancy rate is the biggest hurdle that we have at the moment. We’re so grateful to Jackson County for providing us with this opportunity to have vacant houses that are really a curse to the neighborhood be restored.”
That same day, another previously abandoned home in Ivanhoe was given to a single mother of three who was escaping domestic violence. Other details were withheld due to the sensitive nature of the situation.
As for Caldwell, life is looking up again. She works six days a week at Wendy’s and recently received a promotion which takes effect after the New Year.
As her children explored their new home, they couldn’t help but smile.
“Mama, look, an oven!” 10-year-old Andrew said.
Next to the oven was a freezer and refrigerator filled with food.
“It’s beautiful!” Andrew told Northeast News of their home.
“I feel happy,” seven-year-old Manyiuel said. “I’m happy because we got the house.”
For Caldwell, receiving the home means a road to success.
“This has been a long time coming,” she said. “It’s been rough these past couple of years for me and my children, and this is what we need to continue our road to success. Everything is going good for us. Life is looking up.”