Nikita Smalls Jeffrey, 34, knows what it is like to have nothing. She also knows what it is like to have everyone around her offer assistance in a time of need.
In July 2009, Smalls Jeffrey lost her home and everything in it to a fire while she and her children were away visiting relatives.
“I just broke down crying. I just thought, ‘I don’t have nothing,’” she said of learning about her destroyed home. “I was really upset at first, and after the initial shock, after I sat down and thought about it, I was just more in appreciation and thanked God no one was home.”
After church members, including Hinesville City Councilman David Anderson, learned of her tragedy, he asked other city officials how they might be able to help her.
The answer was the Homeless Prevention Program, formerly known as Next Step, a program dedicated to directing services toward the prevention of homelessness.
The idea is to get homeless people living on the streets or shelters into permanent housing, said Daisy Jones, Homeless Prevention Program Coordinator for the Community Development Department.
Smalls Jeffrey lived with an aunt for about a month while she gathered her bearings and worked as an associate at Walmart.
Friends, family and church members gave her gift cards, cooked her meals and donated uniforms for her children to wear to school as she mapped out a plan to move forward.
“It really touched me and made me feel good that there’s people out there that helps out and looks out. It made me feel grateful that I had those people in my life,” she said. “Total strangers would help me out.”
After Anderson came to her about the program, Smalls Jeffrey enrolled and decided to work toward getting her life back.
“In order to enter the program, participants must be screened and verified as homeless. If and when a home is available, then they undergo the intake process,” Jones said.
The available homes have either two or three bedrooms.
A spot opened up and Jeffrey moved into a home before school started again in the fall for her children, Tevin, 17, and Kiara, 9.
“It was beyond my expectations,” Smalls Jeffrey said of the three-bedroom home she lives in.
There generally is a waiting list and during enrollment, all participants must be employed, make monthly rental contributions and attend life skills development classes, Jones said.
The program is now at maximum capacity for participants — 15 people — and “is a temporary housing situation to allow people time to get on their feet and move forward,” Jones said.
After Smalls Jeffrey enrolled in the program, she said the most beneficial thing to her — aside from having a new home — were the life-management classes she took.
“First of all, the program really surprised me. They paid my utilities and a portion of my rent, based on my income. With the program I had to pay my bills and I had to save money,” Smalls Jeffrey said.
Her credit was poor, and she needed a way to learn how to manage, she said.
“Like most Americans, I was in credit card debt,” she said.
With the classes, her credit score improved. She paid off an entire credit card and drastically reduced her balance on another one.
Smalls Jeffrey’s home is inspected by program workers twice a month to ensure that she keeps an orderly home, and she must adapt a self-sufficiency plan with a case worker.
Because of Smalls Jeffrey’s dedication to moving out into her own home, she graduated from the Homeless Prevention Program on Dec. 1. After her success in the program, she applied and was accepted into the Assets for Independence Program.
“The city of Hinesville AFI/IDA Program helps qualified low to moderate income families, living within Liberty County, purchase a home or attain post-secondary education for themselves or their dependents. Qualified participants will save $2,000 within a two-year period, and get an equal match from the City of Hinesville and from a federal grant. At the end of the program, participants can have $6,000 towards their purchase goal,” according to the city of Hinesville’s website.
Even though the amount from the program isn’t enough to buy a home, Smalls Jeffrey said she knows it is a start and hopes to have a down payment on her home through the AFI/IDA Program in the next year.
“It is not a lot, and no, it’s not going to happen overnight. [But] people are really good natured, that’s what it taught me. You can lose everything, so appreciate everything you have,” she said of her experience. “It is a feeling of being proud and I can see the other side of the rainbow, and I know in a few years I will own my home. From being homeless to being a homeowner, it is just an accomplishment that I know I will achieve. It makes me smile.”