How Birdhouses Will Help Rescue Families from Homelessness

Birdhouse auction items
Works by Pat Quinn, Cindy Lou Farley, Jim Underwood, Barbara Mann, Brantley Settle, and Annette Hatton at auction

In April of 2018, the Athens, GA, affiliate of Habitat for Humanity raised over $18,000 by auctioning donated fine art pieces inspired by birdhouses, ranging from delicate jewelry to sculptures more than five feet tall. With that sum, Athens Area Habitat can completely restore an apartment to house a family in need.

But by joining forces with another non-profit, the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Athens (IHN), those funds will end up helping multiple families transition out of homelessness year after year.

Habitat crew member works on duplexes at Magnolia Terrace where IHN home will be located

Since 2004, IHN has helped move homeless families into permanent housing through their transitional housing program. “Typically, these are families living in cars, or bouncing from one relative to another until there’s nowhere else to turn,” says IHN director Davin Welter. “Many are already employed but still can’t afford to feed themselves and pay rent and utilities.” IHN’s program identifies each participating family’s barriers to finding permanent shelter, creates a personalized plan for overcoming those barriers, provides financial education and vocational training, and houses them temporarily at member congregations while the plan is implemented.

“While in our program, they spend no money,” says IHN board member Tom Rodgers. “We cover food, medicine, transportation, and we get them set up with savings so they can build up a cash supply. We have 38 participating congregations, 15 of which provide temporary shelter, and all of whom help by volunteering and fundraising.” The IHN program receives no government funding.

“The Habitat house opens up new possibilities,” adds director Welter. “It’s a critical component for families who are on the cusp, almost ready to be on their own. With IHN guaranteeing the rent in case of a setback, this permanent housing resource allows us to move a family out of the rotation among the congregation shelters, giving them stability so that a minor setback doesn’t put them back on the street, while freeing up a spot for another family to enter the program. It’s a win for everybody.”

“HUD has moved away from funding transitional housing, and toward a model that tries to move people directly into permanent shelter,” Welter explains. “But the reality is, some folks simply don’t have the resources or skills to go straight into a permanent situation. Our program bridges that gap by supporting the family while they acquire those resources that will allow them to be independent.”

“The way I look at it, it’s like a splint on a broken leg,” says Athens Habitat’s executive director Spencer Frye. “You can’t just tell somebody, ‘Go walk it off.’ You have to provide support while the break heals, and then you can remove it and let the patient walk on their own.”

"Safe Arbor" by Jim Underwood
“Safe Arbor” by Jim Underwood

Over 40 Athens area artists worked for months creating original, one-of-a-kind works of art which were donated to Athens Area Habitat to raise funds for the unit. Thrivent Financial and many local sponsors funded the auction at the State Botanical Garden, and around 200 bidders purchased tickets and bid on the art works. The highest bid received was for an intricately carved sculpture by Jim Underwood entitled “Safe Arbor” which fetched $3,000, a record for the auction which is the fourth to be held since 1990. Annette Hatton’s multimedia sculpture “Hallelujah Acres” also topped the previous bid record, earning $2,400 for the charity.

“We were thrilled with the results,” says Athens Area Habitat outreach director Bridget Sivewright. “Raising enough funds to provide a home for a family was our goal and we met that goal. But by partnering with IHN, we can now go way beyond that and begin a process that will help move any number of families into permanent shelter, year after year. When we decided last summer to revive the birdhouse auction, we never dreamed it could have this kind of impact. But whether it’s buying a $1,000 work of art or a $75 piece or simply buying a ticket and coming out, each contribution creates a ripple, and these ripples then form a wave that can touch so many lives. It really demonstrates the power of small gifts to do great things when a community comes together like Athens has done here.”

Athens Area Habitat plans to begin renovation of the transitional housing unit within the month, and is considering making the birdhouse auction a regular event held once every four years. IHN is also hoping to build on this first effort. “We don’t want to stop here,” says director Welter. “We’d like to see many more of these units created in the Clarke County area, and if we keep receiving the support from the community that we saw in April, I believe that’s what we’ll see. It’s all about working together, about helping each other. As Americans and as human beings, that’s when we’re at our best.”