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The Shaky Transition from Homeless to Homeowner

Abandoned city building
By the age of 16, Nefertari Nelson Williams had moved 20 times. For a decade, from the ages of six to 16, Williams and her mother spent times in residences varying from the relative safety of family members to the instability of local shelters.

But she never let it show. And she never let it stop her from eventually owning her own home.

Years later, Williams, a writer based in New Jersey, began the search for a new home. During a tour of a three-bedroom, she and her kids immediately knew it was worth fighting for. After opening the front doors, her five children dispersed, touring it themselves, even noticing a groundhog in the backyard. Her oldest daughter took it as a sign. But Williams saw something even better: she saw security.

“The kids didn’t feel afraid,” Williams said. “They felt free.”

There are over 610,000 homeless people in the United States, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Owning a home is a privilege that many hope to achieve one day. If the shift from renting to owning a home with a mortgage loan is difficult, then the transition from homelessness to homeownership is a feat that should be highly praised. Loans.org spoke with several men and women that overcame homelessness in their own ways.

Yahanseh George Nyghtstorm, a motivational speaker and author, became homeless at an early age. After graduating high school, he decided to leave his unstable household and live on the streets of Atlanta.

“I thought that I would be safer as a homeless person than in the presence of my violent family,” he said.

His situation turned out worse than he expected. He blames his ignorance, spanning from the belief that he would get a job quickly to the belief that shelters were empty, for his outcome. He ended up sleeping on a sidewalk adjacent to Peachtree Street, a prominent street in the city. For two weeks, he lived on the streets, moving locations frequently out of fear that young suburban kids with video cameras, who would travel into the city to beat homeless people, would harm him.

A fellow homeless man told Nyghtstorm that he needed to protect himself stating, “they will hunt you and find you and you might lose your life on the streets.”

The physical threats of homelessness were complicated further by mental toils.

“The feeling of homelessness invades you and systematically executes all thoughts of optimism as the judgmental stares of strangers makes you feel even more inadequate,” Nyghtstorm said.

Living on the streets stole his mind, then his pride, which eventually created anger. He said that faith was the only thing keeping him going.

“I did not belong on the streets, and I did not want to die there,” Nyghtstorm said.

A run in with the law, stemming from young college kids that harassed him, led him to a shelter. He stayed there for two weeks, earning money however he could, until he found a cheap apartment to rent. The place was infested with cockroaches, but it kept him off the streets and allowed him to slowly work towards something better.

Years later, Nyghtstorm met and married his current wife. She had previously dealt with abuse and homelessness herself. This joint adversity bonded them and kept them focused on creating a more stable household for them and their children.

After a decade of working towards a unified goal, the couple bought a home together in 2011.

The Need for Funding

Homeless shelters are molded by both the people that work there and the funding available in the state. HUD awarded $1.7 billion to support homeless assistance programs in 2014, a 5 percent cut from last year due to sequestration and flat funding from Congress.

When budget cuts are made, unessential programs are usually reduced. These areas can include mental health and substance abuse programs, many of the same programs that Alice Shapiro relied on.

Shapiro, a poet and playwright, was able to transfer out of shelters partly because of the additional aid offered in Ft. Lauderdale shelters. One of the three shelters she lived at between 2002 and 2005 offered social workers, counselors, and technology assistance. She said these resources, provided right on the premises, were necessary when surrounded by others dealing with similar situations.

“When you are in a dormitory with a lot of crazy or sad people, you are going to go through a lot of emotional things that no one can help you with,” she said.

The total support that Shapiro received is not always available. Nyghtstorm said the overall infrastructure of shelters is failing and that more emphasis needs to be placed on the emotional aspect of homelessness, not just the physical aspects.

“The programs look good on paper but in reality they don’t work,” he said.

Classes focusing on writing checks, keeping a budget and assessing a person’s emotional capabilities are essential. In addition, Nyghtstorm said more programs need to assist veterans and men, which are “abysmal” now.

The budget cuts for 2014 could pose a risk to these beneficial services that can help lift thousands out of homelessness. When federal programs decline, statewide programs are necessary to help fill in the gaps.

After her time in shelters and aided by a disability check from Social Security, Shapiro moved closer to family in Georgia. Her rental costs slowly increased and she looked for a solution.

In 2010, while discussing housing matters with mortgage loan lenders, she was told about the Georgia Dream Homeownership Program. She was accepted and provided with a $10,000 down payment which decreased the purchase price on a split-level three bedroom home to $60,000. This ultimately made her mortgage payments significantly less than her previous rental payments.

The small gift of $10,000 gave Shapiro the chance of owning a home once again after a four-year struggle with underemployment and mental strain. Now she is able to pursue her career creatively and has rediscovered a feeling of self-worth.

Life Isn’t a Suburbia

People enter a state of homelessness for various reasons. Some are faced with economic hardship, others choose the streets to avoid violence at home, and even more try to overcome mental health issues with minimal government assistance.

In a similar fashion, most have their own personal reason to fight for something better.

One unifying theme several of the respondents that loans.org spoke with was a committment to acceptance and education. Parents wanted their children to understand where they came from, and even though they didn’t have to face similar struggles, they wanted the children to be considerate of those that still do.

Nyghtstorm and his wife remind their children that they live in a bubble of good schools, a safe home, and loving parents.

“Life isn’t this suburbia that daddy put us in. It can be hard,” he explains to his children when detailing the struggle that homeless citizens face. “This is the hardcore truth of what a lot of Americans are dealing with.”

Williams takes a similar role with her five children. Although they are well-mannered, she worries that they take things for granted. But ultimately, she just wants to keep them from her upbringing.

“I don’t think they can fully understand what I went through. I hope they don’t have to,” she said.

Many of those that previously lived in shelters and on the streets who now live in their own homes have simplistic yet powerful definitions of homeownership. For many, it embodies a sense of security and a right that no one — whether a cop, a shelter attendant, or a landlord — can steal away.

Nyghtstorm said having a home makes him liberated and that after all of the adversity he has faced, he finally has a safety net.

“No one can take this from me,” he said.