By Wayne Schutsky
After a year filled with hardship, the future is bright for Mesa nonprofit House of Refuge, thanks to the generosity of the East Valley community and an enterprising Eagle Scout from Queen Creek named Landon Pickering.
The organization first ran into trouble last year when it — and 200 other transitional housing programs across the country — lost funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“May 2, 2016 at 7:30 a.m.,” Executive Director Nancy Marion said, noting the exact time she received the email notifying her that funding was cut off.
HUD had provided funding for House of Refuge since it began operations nearly two decades ago, Marion said. The organization offers transitional housing, financial literacy training and employment services to homeless families in the Valley.
The email came months after the nonprofit began its fiscal year, meaning it had already nearly exhausted its contingency fund that Marion planned to refill using those HUD dollars.
Due to loss of funding, House of Refuge had to move 59 families out of homes it administered. The nonprofit was able to coordinate with Mesa and Gilbert municipalities and other agencies to find replacement housing.
“This community wrapped around us and started donating and we were able to move every family, 144 people in 109 days, off property into other agencies or housing,” Marion said.
She credits Mesa Mayor John Giles and Councilmember Kevin Thompson for spearheading a quick response by the city that helped the nonprofit relocate families and keep its doors open.
During relocation, one house was severely damaged by residents frustrated by the situation. The home – also called House 19 – was left in complete disrepair, with over 40 holes in the interior walls, dented doors, broken windows and piles of trash littering the floor.
Enter Pickering, a Boy Scout with Troop 125 in Gilbert in search of an Eagle Scout Project.
The Queen Creek High School sophomore was introduced to House of Refuge by his father, Rowan Pickering. The elder Pickering runs Event Team, a corporate events company that often donates to the organization.
Upon meeting with the 15-year-old, Marion showed him a range of typical Eagle Scout projects – such as food drives and small projects on House of Refuge homes – but none of those interested the scout.
That prompted Marion to introduce him to House 19, which she referred to as “the big one.”
“I took Landon in there and it’s not cleaned up, it’s not pretty,” Marion said. “He did not hesitate (and said) this is it, this is what he wants to do.”
This is nothing new for Pickering. A few years ago, he collected more than 600 hats and bandanas that were donated to the American Cancer Society.
Landon Pickering admits there were times during the eight-month renovation process that he questioned what he had gotten himself into, but he ultimately finished the project in early July and the fully-renovated home now houses a mother and 10-year-old daughter.
That end goal was enough to keep the high schooler motivated. “I just knew it would be going to a good cause – giving a home to a family that needs it,” he said.
Pickering did not have much previous home improvement experience to draw from, so he learned a range of skills on the job.
In addition to the physical work, the high school student raised $2,840 through a GoFundMe page. He also went door to door to businesses like Home Depot and Lowe’s and received sizable discounts on supplies.
Cabinets 4 Less provided him with $4,500 worth of cabinets for $800, Rowan Pickering said.
A grant from the Arizona Attorney General also provided for a new sewage system and flooring in House 19. In total, the grant covered new sewage systems in 40 House of Refuge homes.
Pickering was not the only one to step up when House of Refuge ran into trouble.
The communities surrounding the charity in Mesa, Gilbert and Chandler also responded by adopting homes and the organization now operates 66 homes without federal government funding.
“This has been an all-out community effort; that said, this is a valuable resource in our community and we are not going to let it go away,” Marion said. “You can’t have an agency with a 90 percent success rate fall off the map.”
This home adoption model allows private individuals and organizations to sponsor one House of Refuge home for $11,000. That covers utilities, house maintenance and a case manager for the residents for one year.