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Finding new hope

Sitting in a hotel room, less than six months ago, Joyce M. lost all hope.

Widowed, homeless, with a 14-year-old son to care for, she wondered where she would be spending the holidays. It was just one of many thoughts running through her head about her future which looked bleak and desperate.

It wasn’t always this bad.

Four years ago, she was married to Darnell, her husband of 20 years. Their two oldest children were becoming adults and their third, a few years behind the others, was 10 years old.

On New Year’s Eve, 2011, a time when people are celebrating the coming of a new year, Joyce said goodbye to Darnell who suffered a massive heart attack at the age of 50 and died before the year ended.

Falling apart

In 2011, Joyce, 53, was working at the Oxford School District as a case manager

nd receptionist. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer that year. She moved her mother into her house to care for her, which required her to leave her job.

“My husband was a carpenter and made pretty good money so he told me I could quit my job and stay home to take care of my mom,” Joyce said. Due to the sensitivity of her life’s story, her last name is being withheld. “Of course, we had no idea at that time his health was about to get bad.

In November 2011, Darnell suffered his first heart attack and could no longer work. He would live only another six weeks or so. Joyce’s only income after his death was the Social Security benefits she received. With two children still at home and her mother’s health quickly deteriorating, bills began to pile up.

“I was just trying to survive,” she said.

Her mother died in April 2012, just four months after her husband. She and her two children moved in with some friends while she tried to find a job. Eventually, they moved into a rental unit in West Spring Hill.

“It was in bad shape,” Joyce said.

Her oldest child was living away from the family. Her second oldest was attending classes at the Itawamba Community College and would come home on weekends. Her youngest was about 12 at the time. Joyce didn’t feel comfortable leaving her son home alone where they were living.

“The neighborhood wasn’t safe,” she said. “I wasn’t comfortable leaving my baby home along. My job didn’t work with me so I lost that job.”

Her Social Security benefits were reduced for just her one son and her widow benefits. After getting another job, Joyce left the run-down apartment and moved into a nicer neighborhood that came with an $800-a-month rent.

“I don’t know how I thought I could do it, but I wanted a safer place for my baby,” she said.

Eventually, she was laid off again and she couldn’t make her rent. She put everything in storage and she was officially homeless.

Turning around

“My baby and me, we started staying at motels,” Joyce said, tears running down her cheeks. Her son is now 14 years old and attends Oxford Middle School.

Joyce went to Interfaith Compassion Ministry for help, which she found, but it was just Band-Aid. ICM would pay for a few nights in the hotel. They would tell her where to go for food.

“Lena (Wiley, ICM director) helped me so much,” Joyce said. “She did what she could for me.”

A friend of hers told her about the Doors of Hope program but Joyce didn’t know much about it.

“I went to see Lena one day and she told me about the same program,” Joyce said. “I went and filled out the application — actually, I filled out two to make sure someone got it.”

Within a day, Doors of Hope contacted Joyce and after the interview processes, Joyce and her son moved into an apartment west of town, in a quiet, safe neighborhood, in August of this year.

Almost four years after her life slowly started to fall apart, the light in the dark tunnel started to glimmer and for the first time in a long time, Joyce had hope.

Finding hope

Doors of Hope opened its doors in summer 2011. The homelessness prevention program works with clients who are in danger of becoming homeless or may already be without a permanent place to live by giving them a rent- and utility-free apartment for about four months while helping clients learn to budget, further their education and save money for their future. Their goal is to give people a fresh start, but the road to independence isn’t always an easy one.

“It’s been hard learning how to budget and dealing with my finances,” Joyce said. “But I’ve learned so much. I would get bills and be so overwhelmed with everything, knowing I had no money to pay them, that I’d just toss them aside and not even look at them. Now, I have the ability to face my bills and call my creditors and talk to them. I’m saving money so when I’m out of the program I can move into a new place and have the money I need for utilities and other things.”

Last week, Joyce found a job. A good job, she said without revealing what she will be doing.

“I didn’t tell my son right away,” she said, finally smiling. “I waited until we had a Step 2 meeting and then I told him and everyone. He just lit up. He was so happy.”

A Step 2 meeting is where past Doors of Hope clients meet with current clients and share their experiences.

Hard work

Carrie Driskell is a social worker with Doors of Hope. She has worked with Joyce since she and her son came into the program. She said Doors of Hope has helped about 30 to 35 people since its inception, including children. Doors of Hope generally only takes at-risk families with children, but each case is decided on a case-by-case basis. Participants must submit to drug and alcohol screenings and a background check.

While in the rent-free apartment, clients are expected to account for every penny they spend. They get help with finding a job, applying for food stamps and getting their high school diploma.

The social workers teach them about planning meals and using shopping lists at the grocery store and sticking to them. They are required to open a checking account and set up payment plans for outstanding utility or other bills. A portion of the client’s paycheck is taken each week and put into a savings account so at the end of the four months, there is money for security deposits on a new place. If they aren’t working, they must actively look for a job. Every dollar that is spent is monitored and accounted for. It’s tough, Driskell said, but necessary for people to learn how to live within their means and sometimes, that means telling family members “no.”

“Once in awhile my son asks me for something and I got to tell him, ‘No we can’t do that right now,’ Joyce said. “But I tell him ‘Maybe soon’ and he is so understanding.”

Doors of Hope helps participants find a place to live after they’re out of the program. They work with local apartment complexes like The Cove, Anderson Estates, Maplewood and the Oxford Housing Authority.

Joyce will celebrate  Thanksgiving today with family members at her apartment where she will be cooking up a storm.

“It feels so good,” she said. “I don’t have to wonder where we’ll be during the holidays now. Doors of Hope is God-sent.

“He put that door in front of me and I knocked on that door and it opened for me. I couldn’t see past this darkness. My first night here, I was so thankful to have a place to lay my head down. I went into my son’s new room and saw my baby sleeping, peacefully, knowing he was safe. I don’t have to worry about the future anymore, or where we’re going to be tomorrow or where food is coming from. I know God sent these people to me and worked through these people who worked on me so that I can learn and get back on my feet and take those steps forward.”