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Belonging breaks the cycle of poverty - MY TURN Taos News Article

Belonging breaks the cycle of poverty

We struggle in Taos County to find jobs that pay living wages, educate our children, and care for our sick and elderly. And while there is some limited discussion on political stages about poverty and about the cycle of poverty that traps families for generations, the income inequality gap keeps widening. Unfortunately, rhetoric will not solve this real-life problem for our community. I submit that we cannot end poverty without first addressing our humanity. And by that I mean no one can rise out of poverty without the belief that they have a rightful place in their community; that they belong. How do we come to believe that we belong? If we are lucky we are born into a family that belongs. We never doubt our place. But what happens when your circumstances are not so lucky? There are several major drivers for personal empowerment. The importance of education cannot be understated. But another factor that is fundamental to “belonging” is the ownership of a safe, affordable home. Presently, fully 90% of the population in Taos County cannot afford to buy a home.

Upon retiring and moving to Arroyo Seco last spring I had the chance to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity Taos (HfHT). I was drawn to this organization initially through the good works of former President Jimmy Carter, Habitat for Humanity’s most prominent volunteer. But I have quickly seen more directly the strength of this organization to change lives and our community. Habitat for Humanity Taos was founded in 1993 and is building our 30th home as we speak. We have also rehabilitated 20 homes. The majority of HfHT homes are energy-efficient adobe homes, one of only two affiliates that builds with adobe.

So how does HfHT function? HfHT partners with families to provide a hand up, not a hand out. Through an application process the partner family must demonstrate several attributes. 1. The partner family must have an income that is 50-60% below the median (according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development). 2. There must be a significant housing need, meaning that the current living situation is unsafe or inadequate, and that the family cannot afford to own a home any other way. 3. The partner family must be able to pay a long-term no-interest mortgage, a small down payment and be willing to put 500 hours of sweat equity into their house. In other words, they and/or their immediate family must personally help build the house. 4. The family must speak at various fundraisers (coaching is provided) and agree to have stories written and published about them. 5. They must also be willing to attend programs to learn and practice budgeting, home repair and maintenance. It’s a big commitment - on both sides. Once a partner family is selected, construction of their home can begin. Most all of the work is done by volunteers, typically involving ~300-400 people from all over the country and the world who come to help build homes in Taos. We are funded by donations from these volunteers, fundraising events and proceeds from the ReStore thrift store. Perhaps most critically, HfHT receives no funding from the parent organization, Habitat for Humanity International. Our local chapter does all of its own fundraising.

So after all of this has occurred, and a family gets their home what happens? Magic. The majority of Habitat for Humanity families stabilize and the cycle of poverty begins to break. Compared to renters these homeowners are 28% more likely to repair/improve their home, live 4 times longer in their community, and are more likely to know who represents them in congress and on the school board. Their children are 116% more likely to graduate from college and 59% more likely to own their own home within 10 years of moving from their parent’s household.

Isn’t this outcome what we all want for ourselves and our neighbors? HfHT has been successful but we could do better. Imagine if we could be building 10 houses a year instead of one every 18 months (our current rate). We could transform our community and break the cycle of poverty for many families. We could have a healthier and more loving community. We could defy the trend of income inequality through our own efforts. We aren’t doomed to follow national trends. We can do this for ourselves. Come join us at Habitat for Humanity with your volunteer time, dollars and ideas. We need everyone’s participation. We can build it!

Laurie Donahue-Hjelle lives in Arroyo Seco and is a member of the Board of Directors for Habitat for Humanity Taos


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