Habitat for Humanity: A Community Model for Activism

Written by Lee Schneider, director of SHELTER

Imagine putting 500 hours of sweat equity into building a community of homes and not knowing which one will be yours. That’s the chance that Habitat for Humanity asks people to take, and if things in Pacoima are any indication, it’s a chance that pays off quite well.

Habitat is building a community of three- and four-bedroom homes in Pacoima, which is 20 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. A group of volunteers and future residents work on all the homes simultaneously, not knowing what home will be assigned to whom. When construction’s done and families are selected to move in, they pay less than a renter would, because they receive a Habitat for Humanity no-profit, no-interest loan. Their “down payment” was the 500 hours they devoted to building the homes together. Those are good figures for the working poor, but the community benefits are even more encouraging.

Jessica Woywode, a recent graduate with a master’s degree in urban planning who now works for Habitat as a Community Development and Planning Associate, was digging in the community garden onsite the day I visited. She has found that people who work together on gardens tend to get together on other things, like helping kids stay in school. “We’ve found that 100 percent of the kids who live in this community graduate from high school.” The rate for the Pacoima area generally is just a 43 percent graduation rate. “Ninety-two percent of our high school graduates go on to college. We have a zero-percent divorce rate, a zero-percent teenage pregnancy rate,” she said. “We believe that’s because of the Habitat program.”

The program involves creating an enriched neighborhood, according to Donna Deutchman, CEO of Habitat for Humanity San Fernando/Santa Clarita Valley. “You bring a family in and give them an opportunity to change their lives, and it’s them as the catalyst.” In this Habitat community, every family gets a free computer and reps from area colleges come in and teach the families how to do internet research. Fresh fruits and vegetables come from the community garden and the families get access to dental and health care.

“We give them access and they fly with it.” – Donna Deutchman

Middle and upper class families know all about that sort of access to services – they just call it “regular, everyday life.” But for the working poor who are raising children, such access can be elusive. But once access is grasped by a family and put into practice, says Deutchman, it can change how a family sees itself in the world.

On the day I visited the worksite, it was during a period of a few days when more than 500 women came together to frame out six new homes in Pacoima. The people carting lumber, drilling and hammering were executives, volunteers and future residents all working together. Among the workers was Rashi Kallur, an assistant VP and Community Relations Officer at Citi. After receiving a few hours’ training on a circular saw, she was doing an impressively efficient job for a first-timer. “It’s personally very rewarding,” she said. “When I actually put in my effort I understand what is behind construction and what does it take. It gives you more of an understanding and value, and you don’t take things for granted.” She got right back to work, transforming as I watched from a first-timer into a pro.

Citi is anything but a first-timer with Habitat. Rashi Kallur told me that Citi has done 30 builds with Habitat in the past five years or so, and they are a sponsor of the Pacoima build. So far, Habitat for Humanity has built a total of 61 homes in Pacoima; 37 of those homes are occupied and 24 more to be completed this year. That will put the San Fernando/Santa Clarita Valleys Habitat in a select club: They will have built 100 homes in their area, and worldwide only 5% of Habitat affiliates have achieved that milestone. The model for community construction, extended into community services, becomes community change.

“We are breaking down the stereotypes and breaking down the way the parents and children view society. Working side by side with presidents of companies, totally different backgrounds, all working on their house – it totally changes their perception of what the world is,” Jessica Woywode said.


4 comments so far

  1. […] that will give a three- or four-bedroom home to volunteers who have helped build it, according to Shelter. Though they don’t yet know which house will be theirs, the families moving into the […]

  2. homelessgirl on

    I love what habitat do, so inspiring

    • docuguy on

      Thanks for commenting! If you have any blog post you would like us to re-run on SHELTER so that more people can see them, let me know. – Lee Schneider

  3. […] Read The Article Online […]

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