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Our House: It's more than shelter 

Nonprofit helps folks get back on their feet, from working poor to the formerly wealthy.

HASTINGS BRANSFORD: Our House helped him get back on his feet. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • HASTINGS BRANSFORD: Our House helped him get back on his feet.

Hastings Bransford grew up in the wealthy Heights neighborhood in Little Rock. He has a college degree. His resume includes stints at a successful company he started and later sold, his family's investment business, Marriott and Comcast. He drives a Lexus. Yet, when he came to Our House in April 2013, he had one thing in common with most everyone that seeks a bed at the Little Rock shelter: He was broke.

"I basically came in with the change in my pocket," Bransford, 62, said. His last job, working for a former business partner, had ended when his former partner retired. "I started applying for jobs. There was a whole lot of difference in applying for jobs at 41 than at 61. I really didn't know how to apply for a job. I know that sounds weird, but I had either known somebody or been recommended for a position when I had applied for other positions 20 or 30 years ago. It wasn't a blind situation."

No tragedy befell Bransford. He is not an addict of any kind.

"I just didn't pay attention," he said. "I went through the savings fairly fast and scrambled for a few months [after losing my job]. I'd always been used to having a pretty good income. I just assumed I would be going on to the next job. I had never really thought of retirement. The age thing snuck up on me."

Bransford came to Our House on the suggestion of a friend. He knew nothing of the shelter and expected to stay no longer than a week. He's been there now for 20 months, sticking with the Our House program: working full time (at least 32 hours per week) and saving 75 percent of his income.

When people come to Our House, they have 16 days to find a job, something that came as a shock to Bransford. But through the shelter's employment coaches, he learned how to submit a resume effectively and apply for jobs online. "Going the Internet route, which is very normal for my kids, was a whole new ball game," he said. Thanks to Our House's network of job contacts, he got a job stuffing inserts at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Next came a temporary stint doing voter registration. Now he is a concierge and shuttle driver at the Holiday Inn Airport, a job he says he loves.

Last week, he moved from the men's dormitory to transitional housing on Our House's campus, where he has only one roommate and is responsible for buying and preparing his meals and paying $110 in rent. It's a significant jump from life in the dormitory, living with 40 other men and having meals provided. Bransford sees it as the next step for him. He has a number in mind that he wants to have saved before he leaves. "One of the things that former residents have told me is that 'I wish I would've stayed longer and saved more money.' "

Our House was founded in 1987 to address the gap in services for Central Arkansas's working homeless and homeless families. Between 110 and 120 men, women and children call Our House's campus on the former grounds of the old VA Hospital on East Roosevelt Road home every night. Annually, it serves more than 1,400 people, at least 75 percent of whom leave homelessness.

Ultimately, the shelter's goal is to permanently break the cycle of homelessness, says Georgia Mjartan, Our House's executive director since 2005. Under her leadership, Our House has expanded dramatically, growing its budget and staff fivefold over the last decade to offer a wide and seemingly ever-expanding array of wraparound services to its residents and others who are at risk of becoming homeless or who live in poverty. In addition to job training assistance, Our House provides GED instruction, computer training, re-entry assistance for former prisoners, and a wide range of life-skills classes (from money management, to domestic violence recovery, to cooking). An $800,000 renovation of the Adult Learning Center, where those classes happen, just began, with Our House still in need of $150,000 to complete the project.

"A lot of people think that when it comes to homeless shelters, the government's got that," Mjartan said. But Mjartan says the majority of Our House's budget comes from local, private donors — including people who attend Our House's annual events (Tie One On, a live and silent auction benefit, is 6-9 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 3, at Pavilion in the Park in Little Rock) and family foundations.

Aside from money from Pulaski County's brownfield rehabilitation fund, all of the $5 million Our House raised to build its 19,000-square-foot Children's Center came from private donors, Mjartan said. It opened last year and can serve 150 children a day with its child development center and after-school programs. One testament to the shelter's impact and success: One of the Children's Center donors was a former resident of Our House, a single mother with two children who was four years removed from homelessness. She gave over $1,000.

To donate, volunteer or otherwise get involved with Our House, visit ourhouseshelter.org or call 501-374-7383.

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