A home for the holidays: Nevada County family given a chance after years-long struggle to find housing | TheUnion.com

A home for the holidays: Nevada County family given a chance after years-long struggle to find housing

It wasn't easy finding a home for a family of eight in today's rental market.

But after nearly three years of searching with the help of the Grass Valley Salvation Army, Justyne (Greer) Emmerton and Shawn Emmerton have done it.

Justyne and Shawn, who are married and live with six kids, were staying at the Salvation Army's Booth Family Center while they spent those years searching for a permanent home. Their family had been crowded into a one-room apartment — the biggest the Booth Center has, but still too small for their crew — hoping for, essentially, a miracle.

Prior to moving into the Booth Center, Justyne, who fled an abusive situation, and her five children had lived in motels, emergency shelters, family centers — wherever they could find refuge.

Throughout that time, the kids hardly stayed at one school for more than a single academic year.

Justyne met Shawn while living at Hospitality House, Grass Valley's emergency shelter. He has three kids of his own, one of whom now lives with him and Justyne.

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Years before the couple met, Shawn returned home to Nevada County from a stint serving as a cook in the U.S. military. He had trouble staying on his feet.

"I dabbled in things I wasn't supposed to," he said. "I had drug issues, and I was down and out for a good five years, basically running amok, living on the streets."

When he met Justyne, he decided it was time to turn things around.

Shawn found a job at a Nevada City restaurant, where he now works full-time in the kitchen.

But his criminal record, in addition to his and Justyne's large family size and modest income, made it close to impossible for the couple to find a permanent place to live.

Rejection

"We searched high and low," explained Justyne, who said she spent hours each day looking at and applying for rentals online and around town.

She and Shawn wanted to stay in Nevada County in hopes of keeping his job and giving the kids some stability, but they looked elsewhere, too.

No matter where they applied, the response was always the same: rejection.

Sarah Eastberg, director of the Booth Center, has worked with the family throughout the process. The Booth Center's staff provides case management and housing location services to all of its clients.

The center offers temporary housing to nine families at a time, and according to Eastberg, has an unending waiting list of 12 to 20 families hoping for a spot at the facility.

The Salvation Army doesn't put a time limit on how long families can stay at the Booth Center, so long as they are making progress toward their goals. Eastberg said it's become increasingly difficult in today's rental market to find permanent housing for clients in a timely manner.

But Justyne and Shawn had an especially tough time.

"They had, by far, been there (at the Booth Center) the longest," she said.

Eastberg said it was hard to find a landlord willing to rent to a family with six kids. It was also difficult, she said, to find a place that was both large enough for the family and in the right price range.

"A lot of landlords didn't want to put a family of eight in a two or three bedroom. And I don't blame them," she explained. "But for a four bedroom, the amount of rent increase is incredible. Shawn is a hard worker and he brings in income that can pay for it, but getting a landlord to see they could afford to pay the bills and still support the children was tough."

On a few occasions, the couple came close to signing leases. But landlords backed out at the last minute.

The rejection started to take a toll on them.

"Justyne and Shawn were just so beat down from hearing 'no' over and over again," Eastberg said.

Making the case

In September, the Salvation Army hired Tom Kellar as its housing locator at the Booth Center and, within months, Justyne and Shawn found a place to live.

"Tom has used his energy and his passion and has just completely advocated for them," Eastberg said. "When he got here, he said, 'That's the family I'm going to house.'"

Kellar, who's worked in similar roles at other organizations, leveraged a prior connection with a landlord, Lee Hudson, to get Justyne's and Shawn's feet in the door at a rental he'd heard was on the market.

"I called her up. I wrote her a letter and left it on her gate," Kellar said. "When you see an individual (Shawn) working 12 hours a day, six days a week, without fail — never calls in sick, never misses a day — and he can't find a place to live because he's part of a much bigger family, it's heartbreaking. I laid that out to Lee. I said, 'This is the situation and the guy needs to catch a break.'"

Hudson agreed to meet the family.

'Are we going to get it?'

"I got there and everybody was all dressed up," Hudson said. "Their house was one very small room and it was immaculate. There wasn't so much as a paperclip on the ground. All the little kids had on their good clothes and they all shook my hand. It was so cute. They all held their hand out, or sometimes I got a hug. And I just melted. I said, 'This is a family that deserves a chance.'"

Within weeks, the family moved in to her four bedroom rental.

"It was the most amazing moment I've had in my years of doing this," Kellar said, describing the initial meeting. "One of the kids asked her, 'Are we going to get it?' And she said yes. There wasn't a dry eye in the house."

Making a difference

But the road doesn't end there for Justyne and Shawn. The Booth Center's staff will work with them on an ongoing basis to ensure they are staying on track and paying the bills.

The staff will also work closely with Hudson to ensure any concerns she might have are addressed.

"That's how someone in my position can really make a difference," Kellar said. "I tell Lee that I'm going to be there in my clients lives for basically two years of case management after they get in. And as the person in that position you really have to follow through. If you do, landlords will come back to you again and again. But if I'm not working with my clients then I burn that bridge."

The Salvation Army will give Justyne and Shawn some help with their rent payments for the next few months. But their main priority is making sure the couple can support their family themselves.

In the coming months, Justyne will look for a job to provide the family with a second source of income.

For now, she is catching their breath.

On the back porch at her new house, Justyne could hardly contain the smile on her face when asked her how the move-in was going. At the time, Booth Center staff members were working to get a couch through the doorway.

"We just love it," she said.

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Pera, email mpera@theunion.com or call 530-477-4231.