On Tuesdays at Hope Restorations, everyone gathers around the table to share a meal. While people make sandwiches or pass around the mustard, Chris Jenkins takes out his Bible. He reads a verse and opens the table up for discussion. No one is forced to participate, but the invitation to talk about what he read, or their lives, is open.
Sitting at the table is a mix of Hope Restorations staff and participants. The differentiation is important.
“If you look at our organization from across the street and just watch the comings and goings, it looks like we’re a general contracting company in the renovation business and property management. The difference is when you get on the inside of the walls. Looking, you see we’re almost completely opposite from our for-profit counterparts.”
Jenkins, a Kinston native, is the executive pastor and the executive director at Hope Restorations. He says on 99% of job applications if you check the box saying you’ve been incarcerated or check another box asking if you’ve struggled with addiction, your application would go in the garbage can. At Hope Restorations, if those boxes remain unchecked, you won’t be considered for the job.
Journey to Hope Restorations
Hope Restorations is a transitional employment and training program for adults recovering from addiction or incarceration. The participants renovate dilapidated houses in the East Kinston neighborhood to provide affordable housing for low-income families.
From the beginning in 2015, the hope was to become self sustaining. The organization received enough money from The Duke Endowment to take on one project for the 2016 year. It was essentially a viability test, and with lots of growing pains, they passed. They realized in that year they couldn’t rely solely on volunteerism. In 2017, they reorganized and received a larger investment from The Duke Endowment to expand, acquiring more property to renovate.
“They [The Duke Endowment] saw our ideas as a really unique approach to helping people recover from addiction or incarceration and at the same time, they are working to address the affordable housing issue,” says Jenkins.
Stumbling into community redevelopment
Most houses Hope Restorations work with were built in the 50s or 60s and are donated because they are in such poor condition. The ones they purchase are in the $2,000 to $3,000 range. “We go into them and do what you might call an HGTV episode on steroids,” says Jenkins. Over a couple of months, they strip everything down to see what is structurally good. Then they start putting it back together. The metaphor doesn’t escape Jenkins.
“We’re really in the business of rebuilding lives, right? It just so happens that renovating houses and renting them out is the vehicle through which we have found to do it. But it’s much more about knowing people and being in fellowship with them and sharing life with them. Helping them figure out how to succeed in whatever their definition of success is.”
Initially they focused on two neighborhoods in East Kinston for logistics, and then they saw a different benefit. They realized if they concentrate work in one area, it would make a larger impact. They started meeting neighbors, making connections, and getting into the business of community redevelopment.
When renovating a house, they focus on energy efficiency and safety. Most of the houses must have a complete rewiring to modern codes. They install new lighting fixtures and try wherever possible to use LEDs, which cost more but allow for lower energy bills. They install newer ceiling fans to help circulate air and keep people more comfortable without having to change the thermostat. They replace windows or weatherproof what is already there, if it’s in good condition. All in all, materials and wages for workers add up to anywhere from $40,000 to $50,000 per house.
In the end, how much does this save a future tenant? Jenkins says, “Our tenants are enjoying a $200 to $250 a month utility bill, which includes water, sewer, and trash pickup, where their neighbors are paying $400 to $600 a month. And for somebody trying to live on $1,200 to $1,500 a month in income, that’s a huge savings.”
Jenkins says he can look at things differently now in retrospect. Hope Restorations became something much bigger than originally anticipated. Partnerships, resources, and opportunities kept presenting themselves along the way. They work with CareNet Counseling East that provides family and relationship counseling services, North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services Vocational Rehabilitation Program, and NCWorks, just to name a few.
It is important to Jenkins that Hope Restorations focus on the training, building, and employment part, and that other resources be available through partnerships. They are constantly trying to improve their services and one way is by applying to become an administrator in the urgent repair program through the North Carolina Housing Finance Administration. If approved, they could work with homeowners who qualify for a ten-year forgivable loan.
Hope Restorations wants participants to leave with a good paying job. They give workers Fridays off to go take classes at the local community college or go on interviews and be actively looking for other employment.
Jenkins wants others to see that reentry is a real problem.
“These are good folks who have made mistakes and they need another chance, right? We need to have conversations about why we keep asking people to check this box and then wonder why they keep going back to prison, right? Because they can’t get a job. And the best way I think to deal with that is not to write an article in the newspaper, but it’s to help the folks sitting in the pews on Sunday to meet these folks and just realize through their own experience…he just made a mistake.”
Editor’s note: The Duke Endowment supports the work of EducationNC.