About 50 people attended the annual meeting for Seneca Habitat for Humanity Sunday at St. Joseph Activity Center. The crowd included volunteer builders and spouses, partner families and board members. Joe Swora, executive director, presided at the event.
Following a potluck supper, Sharon George, director of the Seneca County Family and Children First Council, gave an update on poverty, unemployment, underemployment and housing in the area.
A family of three earning less than $18,310 per year is regarded as living in poverty, she said. Statistics show nearly 13 percent of Seneca County families, including 40 percent of the children, are at this level.
Of those considered in poverty, 73 percent are ages 24 and younger, with senior citizens making up about 9 percent. About 7,000 local households are on food assistance, she said.
"There isn't a month that goes by, since a year and a half ago, where less than $1.2 million in food assistance is given out in Seneca County alone, and there are over 10,000 people on Medicaid in our county, currently," George said. "The average food assistance per person in Seneca County is roughly $105-$110 per person per month."
In the area of housing, 25 percent of the 56,000 Seneca County residents are renters. The figures show 16,700 households are over-occupied, and 67 percent of the households are single-parent families.
"Generally, it's the mother in the household trying to operate a household. ... So I imagine that has a huge impact when it comes to the population that you serve, that you're looking at a great number of single moms looking for affordable housing," George said.
She also had information about the "working poor" or underemployed, who earn too much money to qualify for assistance programs and too little to provide a comfortable lifestyle for their families. Government figures suggest paying an average of 30 percent of one's income for housing and utilities, but families with annual incomes of $35,000 or less are expending 63 percent for that purpose, she said.
"It's amazing to see how much of the population is considered working poor. Statewide, we have 27 percent low-income working families. ... They're working but not having enough to make ends meet," George said. "In Seneca County, you would have to earn $12.95 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market value. If you're working for minimum wage, $7.50, you would have to average 72 hours per week to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment."
George's program also explained some of the strategies being used to reduce poverty in Seneca County. Bridges Out of Poverty is a program to educate those working with people in poverty. It tries to explain the lifestyles and values that have shaped low-income individuals to give social workers, teachers, health district nurses and charitable organizations a better understanding of their clients.
"In the last three years, we have educated approximately 500 people in the county on Bridges Out of Poverty," George said.
A subset of the Bridges program is Getting Ahead in a Just Getting By World, a seminar for families in generational or situational poverty. The series of workshops helps them to formulate a plan for becoming self-sufficient. Graduates from "Gettting Ahead" can participate in a support group called Circles. Members of the community serve as "allies" or mentors to encourage and assist those who have completed the class as they try to improve their financial situations and move out of poverty.
A new feature George is offering is a "poverty simulation kit" which utilizes role playing. It can be used in continuing education for school faculty and staff, nurses, clergy and administrators of charitable organizations. Participants can step into the shoes of a low-income person to understand the barriers they face in obtaining employment, transportation and affordable housing.
A video clip of the challenges of a single mom with three children concluded George's program and brought Swora back to the podium.
"Probably the most frustrating thing about being in this kind of work, is that for all the good that you do, or that I see done in the name of this agency, I'm always well aware that there's always two more people out there that I know need assistance of some sort," Swora said. "Always remember, the need for what this agency does is out there ... at the same time, remember that the successes this agency has make our work that much more poignant in terms of the lives of the people we are privileged to work with."
As an example, Swora pointed out a couple that expects to pay off their Habitat home in the coming year.
He listed some of the chapter's accomplishments for 2011, including building two more homes. Alvada Construction and Clouse Construction each installed roof trusses and sheeting on those dwellings.
A student intern, Amanda Stovicek, assisted Swora last fall, and the chapter hosted a 25th anniversary fundraiser.
"I checked, and we are actually the eighth-oldest affiliate in the state
of Ohio, out of 66 affiliates," Swora said.
For this year, homes at 246 and 263 Third Ave. are to be completed using Energy Star and WaterSense standards, which should save additional dollars for the families.
In addition, another intern, Callie Dewald, is helping with grant writing and other tasks at the office for spring semester.
Swora said he expects several volunteers from Bath Church in Akron to return this summer to donate labor for a week. He also thanked Tom Renninger, instructor at Sentinel Career and Technology Center, who brings his students to the Habitat build sites.
"Sentinel students do all the wiring in our homes, and the work they do is professional caliber and beyond," Swora said.
The Family Selection Committee submitted a written report for 2011, stating it had sent out 95 applications but only received 11 for review. Of those, one was denied for failing to provide additional information; five were denied because of too much debt; four had too much income to qualify; and one was rejected for too little income to make a mortgage payment.
Two applications from 2010 also were carried over, including that of Challie Briihl. She was approved for the home that is to be started this May on Third Avenue. It is to be the 44th home built by Seneca Habitat.
The committee has revised its selection criteria, which considers family size, income eligibility, a credit check and ability to pay. Committee member David Drake designed a spreadsheet for the committee to use. Members expressed concern about the shortage of qualified applicants. In addition, some of the existing home owners have fallen behind on their payments.
Habitat plans to have a booth at the Family Fest April 14 to distribute information and applications and to talk with interested individuals.
Swora emphasized he or his intern is willing to help clients complete the applications.
Seneca Habitat President Wayne Kromer thanked the core group of builders, all the committees, as well as Cindy Miller, who tracks volunteer hours of the partner families and Larry Clausing, who serves as treasurer.
Kromer also made an appeal for more volunteers, especially for the Saturday work sessions, and ideas for a unique fundraiser for 2012.
"We have this dilemma where our houses are costing more and people are not making enough money. It's getting harder and harder to build a house that's affordable," Kromer said, prior to the election of officers and approval of this year's proposed budget.
With business completed, Swora made final remarks in which he paid tribute to Bob Overholt, one of the founders of the affiliate that has endured for 25 years.
"The need is always there. By helping tell our story to others, you will help us to address try to address that need as well as we possibly can," Swora said.
To learn about becoming a Habitat home owner, a volunteer or donor, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (419) 447-4270.