Financial ruin to recovery

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Roane family shares its story

By Cindy Simpson

Jennifer Johnson’s family doesn’t fit the stereotype of poverty.
But several bumps on the road of life road left their finances in shambles.
Homelessness loomed.
“We were behind on car, rent — every bill possible,” she said.
Her husband, Kevin, injured his knee while in the Navy in 2011. They are struggling to get the disability they believe he deserves.
Kevin was unemployed for a while after returning from service, leaving Jennifer’s lone salary to pay the bills while he cared for their sons, Spencer, 4, and Skyler, 8.
The past-due stack piled up.
Rent on their two-bedroom Harriman house became harder to pay.
“We were only like a month and a half behind,” she said. “My car was way behind. We didn’t have heat.”
Jennifer said she made good money — just not good enough to support the family of four.
“We just never could catch up. We were trying,” Johnson said.
They first lived in Maryville, which she said was an expensive place to live, but a family member lived with them and helped out. When that family member had to leave, the Johnsons lost the home.
They moved to different homes around Roane County, including one the landlord sold in 2011, which forced them out. At another residence, they were given notice they needed to find somewhere else to live.
Last winter, Jennifer was seeking help with the utility bill in Roane County. Stephanie Corum, the case manager for Catholic Charities’ Pathways transitional housing program, overheard her.
“She heard why I had fallen behind,” Jennifer said. “She asked me if I had ever heard of the HUD program. She ended up coming to my house— finding out where I lived and knocking on the door.
“She said ‘I have an opening,’” Jennifer said.
The couple now live in Kingston and are learning to manage their tight budget, but both are now employed.
Jennifer now works for Michael Dunn Center and is planning to go back to college to advance her career opportunities. 
Kevin welds to make boat trailers.
Through Pathways, the couple have monthly goals, including paying down their debt and juggling expenses.
The program also expects its residents to pay a reduced rent based on 30 percent of their income.
The money actually goes into an account managed by Corum that goes toward paying down debt and other needs.
If all works well, the families have a nice little savings account built up when they leave the program and the account is turned over to them. 
“You should have spotless credit if you do it right,” Jennifer said.
The struggles are still there, especially with utility bills and deposits.
The Johnson children both love athletics, and Skyler even plays on a travel team for softball.
Parents of other players and coach Dwayne Howell help out and regularly ask if she needs a ride to a game.
Jennifer seems relaxed as she watches the children from a window.
Spencer rides his bike around the house and jumps on a neighbor’s trampoline.
He loves picking up the mail from the box.
“The neighborhood is mostly older people, so you don’t have to worry about people flying up and down the road,” she said.
The children are happy to be in a three-bedroom house. It’s the first time they’ve had their own rooms.
Spencer also loves his new bed.
“My bed was broken,” he explained. “Stephanie had to bring another bed over.”
The charity often helps with donated furniture and other items for their families.
Pathways is financed mostly through government funding from U.S. Department of  Housing and Urban Development.
“I have HUD guidelines I have to go by. They can’t just be overcrowded in the home,” Corum said.
She recently got a call from a concerned resident who was aware of an overcrowded home, and said she could not help them.
That is why she said she hopes the county gets a Family Promise organization, which could take such people in regardless of HUD definitions.
Family Promise uses volunteers to house families in churches each week and helps them find work and permanent housing.
A group is taking the first tentative steps to make such a program a reality.
Corum said it’s a partnership she thinks could help her and vice versa.
Corum is also always looking for landlords for the program.
HUD pays $469 a month for a two bedroom home and $627 for a three bedroom, so attracting willing landlords can be a struggle.
She praises the landlords who enjoy helping others, but notes there is always a need for more.
She recently found a family that needs to locate in Oliver Springs, and Corum said she needs to find a landlord on the Roane County side.
This fiscal year, she’s helped 39 individuals.
She’s had to turn away more, including 24 singles and 40 families — since July 1, 2012.