After serving her country in the United States Air Force for 10 years, all Rebecca Thomas wanted was to find a nice home where she could live and grow with her six-year-old son.
She had lived in Massachusetts, then Michigan before she came to Florida to take care of her ailing mother. After moving to Florida, her mother passed away within a month, leaving her in a precarious situation. Her mom had lived in a 55-plus community on a canal inhabited by alligators, so not only was it not possible for her to continue living in the community due to her age, but it was also unsafe for her child.
Through The US Department of Housing and Urban Development Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program, , which helps former military members with rental assistance, Thomas had a housing voucher and lived initially in Punta Gorda in the Veterans Village before ultimately connecting with Peace River Community Housing Partners (PORCH). PORCH advocates for the development of safe, functional, affordable, sustainable housing that meets the needs of the people in our community.
“I was in transitional housing at the Veterans Village,” she said. “My case manager told me I should get in touch with St. Vincent de Paul (which offers assistance for those in need), and they took me on, trying essentially to get me into a bridge program.
“It was very helpful while I was waiting on my voucher. I had a roommate there, and it was pretty good. But I needed a place for my child – that was crucial. They did the legwork, and within two months, they set me with Denise (Dull, Director of Landlord Engagement with Gulf Coast Partnership and a PORCH volunteer).”
And PORCH and Dull were ultimately able to help Thomas find a wonderful little house.
“I had driven by it, and it looked good, but I hadn’t seen the inside,” said Thomas. “And it’s nice, a very cute little house in a quiet neighborhood. It had been freshly painted, and there were new floors, new appliances, a big tote with all kinds of household experience. It was pretty amazing and a really good experience – and it continues to be.”
How did she feel that first day?
“Honestly, I think it was disbelief,” said Thomas. “It’s funny when you first see a place, and there’s nothing in it. I started with one piece of furniture, and that’s all it took. You have one key item and a color scheme, and that gets you going. Plus, I had a lot of my mom’s stuff, and I’ve given it my own flair. It’s eye-catching – and it’s mine. It’s great.”
Other than being able to have her son live with her again, what’s the best thing about the house?
“No sharing…no roommates,” said Thomas. “And if there are any issues with the house, they are quickly resolved.”
As an extremely independent, self-sufficient person, it was difficult for Thomas to depend on others for a place to live.
“I’ve always lived independently,” she said. “When you’re homeless or have insufficient shelter, cooking becomes an issue, storing food and your belongings… and you have to keep everything of value in your vehicle. It affects your safety, comfort, and normalcy.
“There’s a lot to be said for showering where you know it’s YOUR shower. And this house has given me my independence again. I’m settled now – before it was a full-time job being in transitional housing because there’s so much work to do just to get the ball rolling. You had to be able to go to orientations, sign papers or meet with caseworkers whenever they needed you to. Now, it’s different.”
Thanks to PORCH and her new home, Thomas has rediscovered the things she’s always loved to do.
“To be able to relax and unwind… it’s really nice,” she said. “And to go ‘oh, yeah, I used to have hobbies, I did have things I used to enjoy’… that’s therapy. I love music, gardening, and painting, and I can do things again. I’ve always been artistic, and it’s a good way to relieve stress.
“To be able to cook whatever I want, to eat whenever I want, not to have to be in at a certain time or to have to tell somebody if you have to be gone for more than three days… it’s something. And I get that it has to be that way (in transitional housing), but when you’re an adult, and you’ve been so independent, it’s very restrictive and hard. And when you’re at a level of comfort like I can now, you can really express yourself creatively.”
What would Thomas tell anyone who needed help about PORCH?
“I didn’t really know what they were all about,” she said. “I do know that they move very swiftly and efficiently. I was blown away. I would tell anyone that it’s an excellent program worthy of their assistance, whether it’s donating time, materials for the housing, or financial help. Something like this program takes a lot of work and every little bit helps.
“And the result of them giving back in whatever way they can? It’s giving somebody their life back. A normal life. It’s a life-changing program, and that’s pretty incredible.”
What does she think would have happened had she not connected with PORCH?
“I honestly don’t know because even since last June or July, the housing market has changed drastically,” she said. “Even if you can afford the rent, they want thousands of dollars upfront. Yeah, I honestly don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t gotten into this program.”
Dull says PORCH’s goal is to keep rental costs affordable for tenants.
“We want them to be able to afford it, so we’re not going to increase the rent,” she said. “We keep it at the fair market rate, and whatever the voucher Rebecca gets is what she’s going to pay. We’re not in this to make money. We’re in it to provide housing, which is why we need donations and funding. We’re not in the for-profit business.”
“We had great partners on this house. We had a veteran cContracting company repair the cabinets, a local business owner donated funding for new floors, and a family owned local floor company installed them. sins tnew floors, tThe local Rotary Club & Team Punta Gorda painted the outside, and a plumbing company gave us a veteransveteran’s discount. This home was a labor of love. So many people were involved in the renovation, and it’s been amazing – but that’s just the kind of community we live in – they care.”
Thomas truly appreciates Gulf Coast Partnership, PORCH, and Dull’s dedication to helping others.
“Denise always responds when something needs to be fixed,” she said. “Whether it’s at night, on the weekends, whatever. And she lets me know what’s going on and when things will be done. She has a heart for this kind of work. She cares about human beings, about the community. And it shows.”