FARGO - What makes a house a home?
Last October, Jake and Jenessa Fillipi considered this question with their four kids: Ellise, Adrian, Alaina and Emmeline.
"Our kids started to try to answer this question by rattling off answers like 'those comfy pillows, blankets, our couch and dining room table'," Jenessa says. "All of those pieces that families who are moving from homelessness and may have experienced some trauma would not have."
What started as a one-time service project for their family has now grown into Down Home, a nonprofit that partners with area organizations working towards ending homelessness.
Although Down Home only became official in November of last year, both Jake and Jenessa say they've been considering how they could fulfill community needs for more than 15 years.
"During the last year, it's become apparent that there is a need to collect and coordinate furnishings and home decor for families who are in transition from homeless shelters to permanent housing," Jenessa says.
Jenessa realized that families experiencing poverty often move into housing with just a bag of clothes and few resources to make first month's rent.
"We really want to create this support and use it as a springboard for a family's future success," Jenessa says.
Carla Solem, a housing coordinator at Northwest and West Central Minnesota's Continuum of Care, agrees.
"Local shelters and housing programs have a large unmet need for household furniture and supplies. Typically when someone becomes homeless, they leave behind many of their personal items," she says. "Sometimes this is because they need to leave abruptly - as with a disaster, institutionalization or domestic violence; other times it is because they lack resources to transport and/or store their items."
Solem says that even when a family finds housing, purchasing furnishings or necessary items like shower curtains, kitchen utensils or tissue holders just isn't an option.
"Some homeless programs can provide vouchers or a few donated items, but resources by far do not meet the need in quantity or scope of items," Solem says. "It is important that people have basic supplies like beds, tables, dishes, pots and pans, towels and bedding."
Kelsey Moorhouse, a case manager at Churches United for the Homeless, says she frequently observes families in these circumstances.
"Some families and individuals come into Churches United with limited personal belongings," Moorhouse says. "When guests are ready to move out, it can be chaotic to find furnishings."
Making a 'space to embrace'
After speaking with area organizations like Churches United for the Homeless, Jenessa says she felt like she needed to do something to empower these families. In December, the Fillipis received their first referral from Churches United.
"We worked with our first family and moved them in on Dec. 23, 2017," she says. "It was quite the Christmas gift for our family and everyone who was involved."
Since December, Down Home has coordinated donations and decorated housing each month, serving a total of five families. This month, the Fillipis are working with a growing family of five (parents who currently have three children, and one on the way).
"It's really powerful to be a part of this process. We all see homelessness is in our community, but until you really start to dig into the discomfort of families in need you don't understand it," Jenessa says.
Moorhouse says Down Home helps 'ease the transition.'
This transition begins when individuals or families check into a Churches United shelter and are assigned a room after they have provided general information to shelter staff. Once in a room, they can meet with a case manager or shelter nurse.
Moorhouse says case managers help individuals and families with a variety of services including help with finding housing but do not have the time or resources for furnishings or decor. This is where Down Home comes in.
"A case manager will look at Down Home's criteria before sending us families that we would be able to help," Jenessa says. "Once we see the family meets our criteria, we meet with them to ask further questions about what they like before making a plan for the space."
Solem says Down Home's attention to detail in transforming housing into a fully-furnished, move-in ready home can go long way.
"We see how valuable comfort items like pictures, rugs, lamps and end tables are to assure people transition successfully to their new home," Solem says.
During Down Home's pre move-in meeting, the Fillipis aim to create a relationship with that family.
"We really try to figure out what their likes are, especially the kids," Jake says. "We want to try to figure out what the space could become for them."
Jenessa says during this time they also talk about their "Pay It Forward Plan" and its purpose.
"We talk about how can we help these people to feel more connected in the community and make further connections for success and growth," she says.
Jenessa says Down Home will follow-up with the family three and six months after their initial move-in date.
"Part of our 'Pay It Forward plan' is following the family for the first year and tailoring it with what their greatest needs are," she says. "Ultimately, we want to reach the end goal of empowerment, sustainability and just helping families to see that it is possible."
One family, one community
Jenessa and Moorhouse knows that moving a homeless family into stable, warm and safe housing is not a task one person or organization can do on their own.
In February, Moorhouse referred Sheyann Ducheneaux and her family of five to Down Home.
"Sheyann and her family were able to find a landlord on their own that was willing to work with them. Once the family found the landlord, Churches United helped the family receive rental assistance," she says. "I was there on the day of the move-in. Sheyann and the family were ecstatic."
Moorhouse says Sheyann could not believe all the work Down Home did for her. But Jenessa says families like the Ducheneauxes aren't the only ones affected by the homeless to housed transition.
"Over the last few months the mission has really resonated for a lot of people, and we're expecting the operation and the need for donations and storage to grow," Jenessa says.
Jenessa, who still works full time as an elementary school counselor at Washington Elementary, says the whole family has contributed to their early success. Her husband uses skills learned from running a handyman business for more than 10 years and her brother, Tyson Kunzia, offers his photography, videography and website-building expertise. Her mom and even the Fillipi kids have contributed to each family's transition.
Jenessa says she hopes Down Home will continue to grow through community and business sponsorships. Other community members or families are invited to sponsor a family who is transitioning from homelessness.
"If we can provide stability to the family and reduce stressors, we will see how that can positively affect the next generation," she says.
If You Go
What: Down Home Open House
Where: 2102 12th Street N., Fargo
When: 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, April 29
Info: Help turn an empty space into a space to embrace by donating approved items during selected dates including during the Open House or from 9 a.m to noon, Sat., May 5; 3 to 6 p.m., Tues. May 8; and 3 to 6 p.m., Tuesday, May 15. Furnishings or home decor can also be dropped off by appointment. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 701-212-9783 for more information. Find a list of items that Down Home is seeking at down-home.org or by searching the event, "Down Home Open House" on Facebook. Currently, Down Home is not accepting couches or mattresses.