A home for the holidays

After being evicted from her home through no fault of her own, the 2015 holiday season was a rough one for Donni Johnson. But with the guidance of United Way for Southeastern Michigan and 2-1-1, the family has a new home for the holidays this year.

Photos by Bruce Unwin; story by Dave Phillips

The holiday decorations went up early at Donni Johnson’s home this year.

In 2015, Donni didn’t even have a home where she could hang them. She, her 14-year-old daughter and her 13-year-old son were living in a shelter last holiday season.

It all started when, unbeknownst to Donni, her landlord fell behind on taxes for the home Donni had lived in for 30 years. In spring 2015, she got an eviction notice to vacate the home.

Though Donni had a job in retail, it didn’t pay much. The family stayed in a hotel while looking for a new home, but Donni was unable to find another landlord who would accept her rental application due to her limited income.

“I really fell on hard times,” Donni said. “After my money ran out, I didn’t know what else to do, so I called 2-1-1.”

“It would give me hope, it really did,” Donni said.

United Way’s 2-1-1 is the region’s leading referral service for food, shelter, utilities and more. Last year, nearly 300,000 people in need contacted 2-1-1, which is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Donni knew about 2-1-1 because she had been enrolled in the DTE Low -income Self-sufficiency Plan (LSP), a partnership between United Way and DTE  Energy. The plan helps families make affordable monthly utility payments based on their income. When Donni called 2-1-1, she spoke with LSP Care Coordinator Jennifer Ledbetter.

Jennifer was able to connect Donni to additional resources through 2-1-1 and helped her find immediate shelter. She continued to check up on Donni to make sure her situation was improving.

“I tried to call her at least every couple of weeks, but sometimes I might have talked to her three times in a week,” Jennifer said.

“I really fell on hard times,” Donni said. “After my money ran out, I didn’t know what else to do, so I called 2-1-1.”

Donni said those calls encouraged her to keep going.

“It would give me hope, it really did,” Donni said. “It gave me confidence.”

During this difficult time, Donni was able to press on. She kept her kids in school, a challenge for many families who are homeless. She was also able to keep working at her job, even after her truck was stolen from outside of the shelter after a few months of living there.

Donni Johnson points out some information while having a discussion with Jennifer Ledbetter, an LSP Care Coordinator at United Way. Donni credits Jennifer with helping her while she was in need, and the two are now coworkers after Donni was hired at United Way in September 2016.

Helping the underemployed

Unfortunately, Donni’s story is a common one in Greater Detroit. Two-thirds of local callers seeking assistance from 2-1-1 earn some form of income, either as employees or seniors earning Social Security, said Hassan Hammoud, Director of 2-1-1 at United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

“These people are not looking for a handout — they’re underinsured and underemployed,” Hassan said. “These are single moms and seniors who have income, but it’s not a livable wage.”

Far too many people in our region are one emergency away from major crises. 2-1-1 is here to help anyone in need.

“These people are not looking for a handout — they’re underinsured and underemployed,” Hassan said.

Shelter and housing resources are some of the most requested services through 2-1-1. Community shelters, rent payment assistance and housing search assistance were all among the top 10 services that callers were referred to over the past year. A total of 14,207 people were referred to community shelters over the past year, while another 11,355 received rent payment assistance and 10,557 were assisted with housing searches.

Click here to view quarterly data reports.

Donni Johnson credits 2-1-1 for helping her get back on her feet. Now, she works at United Way, working to help those in the same position she was once in.

A comprehensive service

2-1-1 launched in 2005, and it’s more than a hotline. When a caller reaches 2-1-1, a Community Care Advocate will assess the caller’s entire situation to find every possible resource available — often times solving more problems than the caller was initially seeking assistance with. 2-1-1 callers in Greater Detroit can be connected to 30,000 statewide programs, 15,000 services and 2,000 agencies.

Every call is entered into our database, and dedicated 2-1-1 data analysts are constantly crunching the numbers, determining what the service does well, what needs to improve and what the future of 2-1-1 looks like.

“The data shows that if somebody is calling for food, odds are there is a correlation that they probably need rent and child care assistance,” Hassan said. “We talk to them about things they may not even be in trouble with yet, but we let them know that services are out there to help them.”

Data analysis also ensures 2-1-1 workers are effective and efficient, and Hassan said this rich information can help United Way adapt quickly to respond to community needs.

“There is absolutely nothing else like that anywhere in the state,” Hassan said. “We have the most comprehensive database of health and human service agencies.”

“There is absolutely nothing else like that anywhere in the state,” Hassan said. “We have the most comprehensive database of health and human service agencies.”

In addition to comprehensiveness and data analysis, the statewide integration of 2-1-1 is another advantage.

“We have a really great integrated system that allows us to share resources across the state and be more effective and efficient in times of disaster coordination,” Hassan said.

For example, United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s 2-1-1 call center provided 24-hour support to the Flint 2-1-1 team for three months as the Flint water crisis began to unfold, assisting with tens of thousands of calls.

Donni Johnson hangs an ornament on the Christmas tree. Donni and her children are excited about spending the holidays in their new home this year.

Respect, dignity and compassion

Above all, Hassan said the most important thing that makes 2-1-1 unique is the way employees treat callers.

“There is one thing we do more than anything — we treat people with respect, dignity and compassion,” he said.

Donni certainly felt that warmth when she spoke with Jennifer. She said it was comforting to have one specific member of the 2-1-1 Team rather than several different people handling her case.

“I had the number programmed in my phone,” Donni said. “It would give me goose bumps. United Way, I knew who that was — that was Ms. Jennifer on the other end just checking on me. She gave me information and she followed up.”

With 2-1-1 guiding the way, those calls gave Donni hope. She described driving over to the shelter on the west side of Detroit, having conversations with her daughter.

“I’d say ‘I’m telling you, Ms. Jennifer is helping me down there. I’m telling you, we’re going to find a house. It’s not going to be too much longer.’”

For 17 months, Donni kept most of her belongings in storage. When she speaks about finally finding another home, she chokes up.

“To be able to turn that key …  ” she said, the emotion overcoming her before she was able to finish the sentence.

Since entering their new home earlier this year, Donni’s kids love to keep the house clean. They’re appreciative, and they’re excited about the holidays. They requested double the Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners to make up for the lack of holiday celebrations last year, and they kicked festivities off early, putting the Christmas tree up before Thanksgiving even arrived.

In September, Donni’s story came full circle as she accepted a job with United Way, processing LSP applications from those in need of utility assistance. Her United Way connection began with LSP, and now she’s on the other end, helping those who are in the same position she was at the beginning of 2015. Just three months into her employment, Jennifer calls her the star of a mailroom that receives hundreds of pieces of mail each day.

“I just want people to know — don’t give up,” Donni said.

It’s clear that Jennifer and Donni share a mutual respect and admiration.

“Ms. Jennifer helped me in a whole bunch of ways,” Donni said. “She helped me with believing in myself, not giving up, and now she helped me with a job opportunity. I am forever thankful for that.”

Jennifer is quick to point out that she simply mentioned the job opening. Donni is the one who went through the interview process and earned the job.

Working at United Way makes Donni feel “warm and tingly inside.” She gets to work early each day and hopes to move up to the point where she’s the one giving resources to callers.

“I look forward to coming to work every day,” she said, and she has some advice for anyone who may be struggling.

“I just want people to know — don’t give up,” Donni said. “It might seem hard. It might seem like you don’t have anyone, but it was my faith — my faith to believe that I deserve better. That’s all I want people to know. I want to reach out to as many people as I can to tell them ‘Don’t give up, no matter what.’ There are still people who care.

“For whoever is listening to my story, I just want them to know that United Way does care. They do care.”