Throughout its 24 years of operation, the House of Refuge has helped more than 2,500 families across the Valley rebound to self-sufficiency through transitional housing and supportive services.
It began in southeast Mesa in 1996 after the U.S Department of Health and Human Services gave it 88 homes that had been part of the former Williams Air Force Base.
Founder Elmer Miller had a vision of helping homeless families with transitional housing and support services to their self-sufficiency. He also started job training, wellness education, financial literacy and other services to teach them life skills.
Five months before doors were set to open, Miller passed away.
“I knew Elmer and I could see his vision for what he saw, and we have been moving toward fulfilling that vision,” said Executive Diector Nancy Marion, who started with the House of Refuge in 1997 and has been there ever since.
Families live at House of Refuge for 12 months and in that time, they get a job, gain education through on-site resources and learn life skills to “transition from homelessness to self-sufficiency.”
“We help them decide how they got into their homeless cycle and what are steps that we can put into place to help you out of that homeless cycle… as they attain goals we set higher goals until they can successfully stand on their own,” Marion explained.
Marion said the average resident at House of Refuge is a 34-year old mother with two or three children, working a job that pays $13 an hour.
“If you are making $13 an hour, the average wage needed to afford a two-bedroom home is $21.10, so are you going to be able to go from $13 to $21.10, without a gap in the middle. That gap is what I call affordable housing,” Marion explained.
New apartments are being constructed rapidly around the Valley, all with rising rent rates often topping $1,100 per month. The gap between fair market value and what some people make “has to be filled by affordable housing” such as House of Refuge, Marion said.
Families at House of Refuge pay $400 a month, utilities included. All 88 homes have been recently renovated and come with basic furniture.
Those who move in usually don’t bring much, so when the 12 months is over, House of Refuge gives the household items to help establish their new home.
“It wouldn’t make any sense if we stabilized them here and didn’t leave them with anything when they leave because they would have to restart a home again,” said Marion
Holding a job is required while living at House of Refuge and an Employee & and Education Center helps residents find one.
“We will help them find a job, we want to help them move up the ladder to increase their earning potential,” said Marion.
House of Refuge has its own classes but also works with other institutions so residents can continue their education.
“We work with places like Brighton College and you can get a certification... an industry-relevant certification to then be able to earn $30,000 to $40,000 a year,” said Marion.
House of Refuge began facing challenges in May 2016 when the federal
Department of Housing and Urban Development defunded many transitional-housing agencies.
The move cost House of Refuge a $722,739 grant, representing 75 percent of its budget and threatening to displace 60 families.
But with the help of the local community, operations continued.
“The community wrapped around us and we were able to move from federal funding to private funding and got back on our feet,” Marion explained, adding that families at House of Refuge could not have succeeded had it not been for the support of the community.
“It’s just an amazing community,” Marion said.
When the pandemic hit, House of Refuge stepped with a community-wide emergency food box drive-thru program.
“This community supported us so strongly, we felt it was important to reach back out to them.” Marion said.
In 21 weeks, it distributed 6,660 food boxes to needy people and families.
House of Refuge is working with Mesa United Way and Foster 360 on a 7-plex housing project to aid youth who are being released from the foster care system.
That program also is aimed at helping them grow self-sufficiency. House of Refuge will be turning the keys over to Mesa United Way/Foster 360 on Dec. 1.