- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 31, 2016

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) - Living in Jackson, you hear housing horror stories all too often.

Here’s one success story.

Noemi Perez and her two children - 4-year-old Dominic and 11-year-old Ventura - were running out of time. After seven years of living at the Virginian Village apartments, the family had less than a month to find a place to live before the final apartment was emptied.

“Everybody was worried when we found out we were going to have to leave,” Perez told the News&Guide.; “Ventura kept asking me, ‘What are we going to do, mom?’

“We were looking all around but couldn’t pay the expensive rents. We’re already having trouble making a lot of our payments. I felt like a mouse running in circles in a small cage.”

Unable to afford day care or a baby-sitter, moving to Victor or Driggs, Idaho, was out of the question for the single mom whose young kids needed to be dropped off and picked up from school each day during her shifts at Smith’s grocery. Driving them back home to Idaho would simply take too long if she was to maintain the household’s only income, reported the Jackson Hole News and Guide (https://bit.ly/2bRhHyB).

Looking for help, Perez turned to the Community Resource Center, which has since merged with the Latino Community Resource Center and El Puente to form One22. Carmina Oaks, Perez’s social worker, put them in touch with Wren Fialka.

Fialka had recently reached out to One22 and mentioned she was starting a project to help local families find housing and was looking for one family to see if she could get the project off the ground.

“I wanted to show what one person can do with one family,” she said.

Relieving tension

By profession Fialka is a massage therapist, but she has a particular passion for relieving tension in homeless communities.

For the past two years Fialka has been running a charity called Spread the Love Commission. It supplies food, clothes and other necessities to homeless people across the country, as well as in Mexico, Peru and Greece. So far it has helped 2,500 people.

As a long-time Jackson resident, Fialka realized the housing crisis in her own hometown required action. So in April she started HUG - Humanity United and Giving - to help disadvantaged families find a home.

When One22 introduced her to the Perez family, Fialka said, she instantly connected and began racking her brain for ideas to house them.

To start she and Francine Bartlett, founder of Medicine Wheel Wellness, who sponsors HUG, started organizing lemonade stands at Phil Baux Park to raise money and awareness. Mayoral candidate Pete Muldoon happened to be hosting a picnic for his campaign at the same spot. As Muldoon spoke with the Perez family he told Fialka he wanted to help.

Within days Muldoon put Fialka in contact with Town Council candidate Jessica Chambers, a member of the housing advocacy organization Shelter JH, along with Muldoon.

Chambers had shown interest in converting her vacant basement into a two-bedroom accessory residential unit as a means to help pay her mortgage. She was open to renting it to the Perez family, but was struggling to finance the project.

“It’s really amazing,” Fialka said of the Chambers’ commitment. “This is going to affect their entire life.”

Call for volunteers

With a number of volunteers working for the Spread the Love Commission, Fialka said she would help assemble a team of volunteers to fix up the Chambers’ basement if they would agree to house the Perez family.

“Me and my husband (Reed Chambers) have limited resources and time,” Chambers said. “We have no money to hire workers and have been doing all the work on our house ourselves. This is a win-win for everybody. We’re helping the Perez family, but others are helping our family.”

So far, Fialka said, over 20 people have helped to donate items, including eight volunteers who are working on the Chambers’ basement, including a contractor and an engineer, and five businesses that have donated everything from wood and drywall to other necessities like shoes, a cellphone and fresh produce.

Anne Muller, who started the Awareness Project, has even been documenting the Perez family’s story through photographs, which can be found at TheAwarenessProjectJH.com, to develop interest in HUG.

“I feel we can show what can be accomplished if everybody pitches in,” Fialka said. “It doesn’t have to be overwhelming. We need smart people to organize, strong people to lift things. You do what you can do. The more people we have volunteer the faster we can get this done and move on to the next project.”

While the project in the Chambers’ basement is only a temporary solution, Chambers and Fialka believe it can become a more permanent fix once the basement is fully completed this winter and more people get involved.

The work being done will make the unfinished basement livable. It will have wood floors, new drywall, a fresh coat of paint and a small kitchen with a fridge, microwave and hot plate. The Perez family was scheduled to move in on Sept. 1 - the same day they needed to vacate the Virginian Village apartments.

As the price of motel rooms drops during the winter season, the Perez family will move out so the Chambers’ can fully remodel their basement. Nevertheless the Perez family is thrilled about the prospect of not living in their car until they can afford to move into a motel.

“It is so nice and we feel so happy, so lucky,” Perez said. “A lot of the people at the Virginian had to leave Jackson.”

Remaining concerns

Despite HUG’s success helping the Perez family, Fialka remains concerned for the future as many more families are in need of help.

“We’re at this really beautiful place where there is so much happening but our resources are running out,” she said. “We need everything we can get because there are a lot more families in need.”

Cindy Budge has already said she would step up. She has donated appliances, but she said she also has basement space that could be used to house a needy family once she finishes her own remodel.

“We’re a community and we have to start doing something about the socioeconomic issues facing this community,” Budge told the News&Guide.; “I feel very adamant about that. I like this concept of a grassroots housing initiative, and I’d like to be a part of propelling that forward.”

Fialka said she, too, knows at least two other people interested in renting space in their homes to needy families.

“We’re getting interest,” Fialka said. “I do a lot of work to make sure the family is going to be a good match for the homeowners. Plus these families work so much their presence is really minimal.”

Those interested in getting involved can reach out to One22.


Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, https://www.jhnewsandguide.com

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