Making laundry detergent from scratch, cooking with dried beans and packing a lunch instead of dining on fast food during the work day are some of the lessons learned by residents at Hillcrest Transitional Housing locations throughout the Kansas City area.
All are cost-cutting measures: A sack lunch is less expensive than a burger and fries at the drive-through and helps save money on groceries, as does cooking with dried beans instead of canned ones or using homemade instead of store-bought laundry soap.
Such thrift in small ways helps teach larger lessons of money-management skills that can mean the difference between someone having a home and sleeping on a friend’s couch.
“Everything was a crisis before I moved in,” said Joanna Hughes, 32, who was accepted into the Hillcrest program in Platte County in October 2014. “It was a hard struggle here at first, watching every penny, keeping bills down and being home by 10.”
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In addition to budgeting, Hughes learned about community living and pitching in to make the property better for all who live in the apartment building. Residents are assigned different chores every week.
“I cleaned and stocked the laundry room one week,” Hughes said. “Another week I cleaned up the grounds.”
Hillcrest is a local faith-based nonprofit organization that provides transitional housing and a rigorous educational program to homeless families and individuals. The goal is to move people from poverty to self-sufficiency in 90 days.
Hillcrest was founded in 1976 as Hillcrest Ministries by Ben and Patsy Beltzer of Liberty, who survived financial devastation themselves with the help of church friends. Hillcrest was incorporated in 1978 and expanded over the years from housing the homeless of Clay County to other locations. The other locations were established as affiliates managed by Hillcrest Transitional Housing of MidAmerica.
In January 2014, the original Clay County affiliate broke away from MidAmerica to become Hillcrest Hope Transitional Housing and Support with apartments in Liberty and Avondale.
Scott Cooper, 43, has been with Hillcrest for 20 years and has seen more than 1,950 households complete the program, which is funded by donations from private foundations, government grants, and contributions from churches, businesses and individuals. Additional revenue is generated through fund-raising events and from sales at Hillcrest thrift stores.
“We have high expectations,” said Cooper, executive director of Hillcrest Transitional Housing of MidAmerica Inc., which has more than 120 housing units in eastern Jackson County, Platte County, Buchanan County and Kansas. “But if you are willing to work full time, budget money and go to classes, you can succeed.”
The 90-day program is what Cooper describes as financial boot camp.
“If you stay in for 90 days, you have a 95 percent chance of becoming self-sufficient,” Cooper said. “After five years, 87 percent of Hillcrest graduates have remained self-sufficient. They are working full time, have kept their families intact and are not receiving welfare checks.”
Here’s the catch:
“You relinquish a lot of control,” he said. “We tell you how to spend your own money.”
In exchange for a rent-free place to live, food and basic needs, Hillcrest residents are required to work full time, observe a nightly curfew, keep their apartment clean, account for every penny spent with receipts, and attend classes in budgeting, community living, employment counseling and life skills.
Applicants are screened thoroughly before they are accepted into a Hillcrest program. They must demonstrate a strong willingness and commitment to achieving self-sufficiency.
The basis of the program is simple: Spend only on needs and not on wants.
But simple doesn’t mean easy.
Cooper recalled a resident who argued about having her hair styled by her own stylist instead of accepting the services provided free by a Hillcrest volunteer hairdresser.
He explained to the resident that later on when she was no longer reporting to a Hillcrest budget counselor, the luxury of having her hair done could mean not having money to pay the water bill. To allow her family to live without running water because she splurged at the beauty shop was “unconscionable,” he told her.
Bad choices are the reason residents find themselves needing help and housing, he said. Hillcrest teaches them how to make mature choices and accept responsibility for their actions.
Hillcrest, for example, does not find jobs for residents.
“That’s their responsibility,” Cooper said.
What Hillcrest does is to provide the structure and guidance that help residents acknowledge the bad choices they have made and plot a course to correct the costs of those bad decisions. Paying off debt and saving money are priorities. Full-time employment is a requirement.
Successes are celebrated at Hillcrest.
Those who complete the demanding 90-day program are called graduates and all affiliates celebrate their accomplishments with a graduation ceremony.
In Lee’s Summit, the celebrations are quarterly potluck dinners held in the conference room of the Hillcrest thrift store. In March, Jessica Bolek, 32, was one of six graduates congratulated.
“Hillcrest helped me straighten out my life and learn how to live on my own for the first time,” Bolek said.
Bolek moved into Hillcrest in January and finished a few weeks early.
“She worked so hard,” said Lu Ann Blankman, case manager. “I was amazed at what she overcame in such a short time.”
Here’s a look at some of the programs in locations around the area:
Hillcrest Hope Transitional Housing & Support/Clay County
Mark Asbury, 54, was employed when he sought housing at Hillcrest Hope in Liberty. In fact, he was working a lot — remodeling houses and also working in a nursing home and a warehouse. None of the jobs was full time and his weekly earnings ranged from $150 to $400.
“I was working all the time but I had no place to live and no money saved,” Asbury said.
He had tried living with a daughter but left when the arrangement strained their relationship. He owed back taxes, utilities and money to creditors.
“We serve the working homeless,” said Faith Weber, a case manager with Hillcrest Hope, which helped 49 households receive transitional housing and coaching in 2014.
“It is not uncommon for individuals making minimum wage to not have enough to live on.”
Hillcrest Hope Transitional Housing and Support is not an affiliate of MidAmerica. The original organization left MidAmerica to form its own nonprofit in 2014. The Hillcrest program was started in Liberty in 1976, and until 2014, the Liberty organization was an affiliate of Hillcrest Transitional Housing of MidAmerica. The affiliate broke away and formed a separate nonprofit organization serving Clay County, Hillcrest Hope.
Moving into a Hillcrest Hope apartment took Asbury out of the chaos that had become his life. He completed the 90-day program and then moved into an after-care unit. Designed for those who can benefit from more time in the program, the extended stay requires residents to pay rent but not food or utilities.
Asbury realized that what he really wanted to do was to return to work as a funeral director, a position he had held for nearly 25 years. He already held an associate’s degree in mortuary science, so Asbury took continuing education courses to become licensed again in Kansas and Missouri. He now works as an independent contractor, performing embalmings and directing funerals.
He left Hillcrest Hope in July 2014 but still keeps in touch.
When his truck was wrecked, for example, he talked to the staff at Hillcrest Hope about buying another vehicle. He didn't fully trust his own judgment.
“You become homeless by making bad decisions,” he said. “Then you continue to make another bad choice to fix the other one and then you're out of money.”
The money management skills he acquired at Hillcrest Hope and the support of the staff helped boost his self-confidence.
“I’ve learned to think things over,” Asbury said.
Hillcrest Transitional Housing of Kansas Inc.
Overland Park is the newest site for Hillcrest in Kansas. Hillcrest has operated in Kansas City, Kan., since 2004.
“We are seeing more and more applications over the last 10 years,” said Chuck Arney, director of Hillcrest Transitional Housing of Kansas.
Since 2008, homelessness in Johnson County has doubled. Now more than 900 students from Johnson County families are homeless.
Arney cited a 2014 study by United Community Services of Johnson County that identified 86 percent of the homeless population as having children younger than 18. These are the hidden homeless you don't see — a single mom with three kids sleeping on somebody’s floor, for example.
Hillcrest opened in Johnson County with a four-plex in 2013. A fire in January caused residents to be relocated and their participation in the Hillcrest program temporarily suspended.
“We had just celebrated Christmas,” said Carol Bolton, 31. “And we had to get rid of gifts that were smoke-damaged.”
Bolton and her four children were among 350 Hillcrest families in Kansas — graduates and current residents — who were able to celebrate Christmas thanks to the generosity of churches and local donors.
“We make it a practice to stay in touch with all our families,” Arney said.
Bolton’s family moved back into the apartment on March 23.
After leaving the father of her sons in 2014, Bolton experienced a streak of bad luck that led her to Hillcrest. Her car was demolished, and she was hospitalized. Her apartment was burglarized, and the landlord wouldn’t fix the door.
“I didn’t feel safe,” she said.
In July she began calling Hillcrest every week to see whether a unit was available. Need for housing exceeds the space available.
“In Kansas, we are able to accept six families a month from an average of 30 applicants,” Arney said.
Cooper expects the number of monthly applicants to double once the Overland Park location becomes better known.
“In Johnson County, we are looking to start a thrift store and expand housing,” Cooper said.
Bolton and her four children — three sons younger than 3 and a 9-year-old daughter — live in an 800-square-foot furnished apartment. She had a temporary warehouse job when she moved in and is now working full time in customer service.
Bolton’s separation from the father of her children has been amicable and has saved her child care and grocery expenses. Bolton leaves the children with their father when she goes to work. He feeds them lunch and dinner.
She budgets $150 for groceries every month and has paid off most of her student loan.
“There are a few little debts I still have, but I’ll get them paid off before I graduate” from Hillcrest, Bolton said.
Hillcrest Transitional Housing of Eastern Jackson County
Joshua and Lauren Foreman paid off $10,000 in debt while they were in the program in Lee’s Summit. That meant a lot of noodles from Hillcrest’s food pantry for dinner and days when Lauren walked 30 minutes to work if a ride wasn’t available.
The Foremans were staying in their friends’ basement when they were accepted into the Hillcrest program a week before Christmas last year. They had moved to the Kansas City area from North Carolina after Joshua Foreman’s position was cut from full time to one day a week.
“We came back to start over,” said Joshua Foreman, 26.
After their first son was born, Lauren Foreman quit her job because the money she earned was gobbled up by the costs of child care.
Joshua Foreman now works full time in customer service and takes college classes in computer technology. Lauren Foreman, 25, found a day-care job working 20 to 32 hours a week, and often takes their two children to work with her.
A tax return and income from Joshua Foreman’s job allowed them to pay off their $10,000 debt, much of which was medical expenses, while they were at Hillcrest. The Foremans have been able to deposit Lauren Foreman’s earnings in a savings account.
“We tried getting out of debt before and were not successful,” Joshua Foreman said. “It helped to have someone looking over our shoulder to get us disciplined.”
Staying at Hillcrest is a probationary process, said Cotton Sivils, director of Hillcrest Transitional Housing of Eastern Jackson County.
Residents are graded every week on such categories as budgeting, employment, interaction with staff and volunteers, community living and life skills, and case management. They lose points for such infractions as lying, excessive noise, smoking in the apartment, not paying a budgeted bill, purchasing items not budgeted for, missing scheduled meetings and leaving children younger than 13 unattended.
Depending upon the severity or frequency of the violation, individuals may be told to leave.
“We are looking for families who want to change,” Sivils said. “Residents have to put an oar in the water with us.”
About a third of those who enter the program will leave before completing the 90 days. The most common reasons for failure are returning to an addiction, a resistance to budgeting and leaving to live in a less restrictive environment.
The Foremans completed the 90-day program in March and were among recent Hillcrest graduates celebrating their success with a graduation potluck dinner — a quarterly celebration. Preparing to move out of Hillcrest to a rental duplex is “exciting but a little scary,” said Lauren Foreman.
Summer Vasquez, a resident manager at the Lee’s Summit apartment complex, understands such feelings. She graduated from the program in 2010 and returned a year later to work for Hillcrest. Resident managers are not paid but live rent free and care for families on site.
“I know exactly what the expectations are,” Vasquez said. “I know what they can do and cannot do.”
Resident managers conduct weekly community living meetings and assign household chores to the residents.
She fulfills her resident manager responsibilities on weekends and evenings. The rest of her time is divided among three jobs while she takes classes to become a medical assistant.
“A job with benefits and insurance” for herself and her young son.
Hillcrest Transitional Housing of Platte County
“I didn’t think I was strong enough for this program,” said Hughes. “But I was out of options.”
Hughes understood the constraints and the commitment required to succeed in the program because her sister was a 2011 Hillcrest graduate and is now a resident manager at the site in Kansas City, North.
Jessica Johnson, 27, said she recommended the program to her sister because “Joanna is a hard worker, but she was spinning her wheels and couldn't get ahead. She needed a push.”
Johnson was working a minimum-wage job when she and her son moved into a Hillcrest apartment. Hillcrest paid tuition for Johnson to take insurance classes. She earned a license to sell auto and homeowner insurance, and her income tripled, Johnson said.
She returned to Hillcrest as a resident manager in May 2014 to help others achieve the success she knows is possible.
Hughes said she ran out of options when a living arrangement with her grandmother didn’t work out after Hughes and her son’s father separated in June.
Hughes was accepted into the Hillcrest program in October 2014 and moved in with her 5-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. She has since paid off more than $4,000 in debt and saved more than $8,000.
“For those willing to work, the magic happens,” said Donice Yeater, director of Hillcrest Transitional Housing in Platte County.
Hughes works full time as a waitress and also does catering for restaurants. She completed the 90-day program in February and requested an extension, an option available at some sites.
“I was not emotionally ready to leave Hillcrest,” Hughes said.
Residents pay a fee for an extension, a period between renting their own apartment and living at Hillcrest.
Although demographics vary from location to location, most Hillcrest households are single mothers striving to improve themselves and support their families. Hughes is taking college classes online and hoping to complete an associate degree for an eventual position with a medical software company.
With two other single mothers in her fourplex, Hughes said they were “one big family.”
The three mothers cooked dinner together every Thursday night, helped one another with child care and started their own book study group.
To contact Hillcrest
Hillcrest Transitional Housing of MidAmerica in Kansas City: 816-694-7849
Hillcrest Hope: www.hillcresthope.org
Kansas City, North: 816-587-9037
Platte City: 816-431-6914
Kansas City, Kansas: 913-400-2573
Overland Park: 816-517-4710
Eastern Jackson County
Lee's Summit: 816-600-2681