By CRISTINA JANNEY
Kacy Claassen said she came to the First Step Housing program with a few bags after hastily fleeing from an abusive relationship.
Claassen, 25, said she had no place to live, no car, no job and no money. She was completely starting from scratch.
She has since graduated from the program. She has a job she likes, her own apartment and was able to purchase a used car.
Claassen is one of eight women who have graduated from the First Step Housing program since it opened as a part of First Call for Help in August 2021.
"I did find a place," she said. "I've been pretty much able to get back on my feet since leaving here. ... It was a new experience, but I never had any doubts on my safety here at all."
First Step is a transitional housing program for residents of Ellis County under the umbrella of First Call for Help. It accepts women or families. No single men are allowed. Participants must be clean and sober and pass a drug and alcohol test.
Laura Allen, client services specialist, said the drug and alcohol test has been a barrier for some applicants. However, she said the program will allow applicants to work toward sobriety and then retest.
She said one applicant was struggling to pass the drug test. She finally was able to pass and was admitted to the program and has gone on to take college classes.
The average stay in the housing program is six months. However, some participants have been able to move to stable housing more quickly. Classen needed eight months to find an apartment in her budget range.
Linda Mills, First Call for Help executive director, said the staff first does an assessment with the client to determine what they have struggled with and what have been their barriers to maintaining housing. The program allows a couple of days for the clients to settle in, and then goal-setting begins in earnest.
"Everyone is different," Mills said. "Their needs are a little bit different, so their individual goal-setting is different."
Allen said sometimes bad choices bring clients to the program and sometimes it is just unfortunate circumstances.
"When you're living paycheck to paycheck, if you don't have something to fall back on, you get behind in your rent and then you get evicted," she said.
One woman lost her mobile home in a wind storm. She had a job, but needed time to save for her security deposits, Allen said.
"Depending on their situation, they may have gotten to a point where it is very difficult for them to make up time," Mills said. "If you're a little bit behind, you can usually find a way to stay where you're at.
"But if you've had any legal problems. If you have had child care problems or job problems and you're behind on everything, sometimes you're just in that deep hole and you can't dig yourself out on your own."
Allen said once you get into that cycle it's easy to give up and fall into the mindset its just going to be this way forever.
Often clients need encouragement to get out of that hopeless mindset. One woman was so overwhelmed she thought she could only handle part-time work. First Step worked with her on her job goals and now she's working full time and progressing more quickly toward her savings goals.
The No. 1 priority for participants is to find a job. Allen helps women learn to read a lease, access job resources and make a budget.
Some participants have applied for tenant-based rental assistance. However, Allen said Harvest America in Hays' list for that assistance is very long. Some women also have filed applications for low-income housing.
Claassen said the program directed her to other resources in the community that she hadn't thought of using.
She urged future participants to work the program.
"Do the work," she said. "Put in the applications. Save the money. Do the classes if you need classes. Do what you can to better your life. It will change your experience."
First Step does not charge participants rent or utilities. This allows them to pay off bills and save for rent and utility deposits.
They are expected to take care of their other personal expenses. However, the women can access the First Call for Help food pantry as well as its hygiene supplies once a month.
Furniture, sheets, pots and pans are provided in the four living units in the First Step Housing wing of First Call for Help. The living space can accommodate two people per room or more if it is a mother with small children.
"It was definitely a humbling experience," Claassen said. "I don't normally take things for granted that I have. I'm not a very materialistic person. I do look back now and I was very materialistic at one point in time. And then I lost pretty much everything. Now that I have started over, it's the best thing that I could have ever done."
Claassen said she now frequents the Arc Thrift Store and Goodwill and learned that there was some pretty cool stuff.
"Yeah, name-brand stuff for a $1 or half price," she said and giggled. "That is the greatest thing."
The community at large has also been a great help, donating furniture for her new home.
"It's just so nice to see a community that is willing to help somebody even if they don't know their situation," Claassen said. "This a good place for women, not just women of domestic violence, but any woman who is needing to start over."
Claassen is truly on her own now. All her finances are now in her own name. She said she is moving forward.
"I don't regret marrying my husband," she said. "I do wish I would have seen signs sooner before I married. But every piece of life is a learning experience, I've found. I have no hard feelings toward him at all. What he does with his life is his life. What he did to me was his choice. I can just hope and pray he will see what he did and fix it before it's too late."
Claassen lost full custody of her 2-year-old daughter temporarily because of her situation, she said. Settling in her apartment is a big part of making her family whole again.
Allen and Mills both said they the program as a success a year and a half after opening.
"They have their ups, and they have their downs, but we are thrilled when they move on to where they want to go," Allen said of the clients.
The program has been steadily occupied but not at max capacity. As of last week, the program had space available.
Allen wanted women to know they don't have to be on the street or in a crisis to ask for help. If they are staying with a friend or staying in car or know they are going to be evicted, reach out, she said.
You can call First Call for Help at 785-623-2800 or go to its office at 607 E. 13th St. in Hays to find more information about being a participant in the First Step Housing project.
You also can follow First Call for Help on Facebook.
Local residents can aid the program by donating food to its food bank. The program maintains a small supply of dish and laundry soap, dish towels and kitchenware that clients will need to start in their new homes. Storage space for these items is limited.
The clients also often need furniture for their new homes, but First Call for Help does not have a place to store these items on an ongoing basis.