November 02, 2022 | Disaster Response

A Place They Call Home

How Unbound’s Critical Needs Fund makes the dream of a home reality for people in poverty

By Kati Burns Mallows

Esther’s home was not in good condition.

The walls, made of earth and wood, had been destroyed by termites, and the tin roof was full of rust. The house, which offered little protection from dust and cold air, was one large wind gust away from falling in, and Esther’s neighbors and sponsored members of the Unbound Mwihoko self-help group in Nairobi knew it.

They knew they had to get her and her extended family who lived in the home help before the entire structure crumpled, and they made Unbound staff aware of Esther’s situation. That was the beginning of the 84-year-old sponsored elder’s brighter future in a place she could finally call her true home — a place she never dreamed she might one day be able to put her head down in and sleep comfortably and safely without worry.

Esther’s story is a story of struggle, but through assistance from Unbound’s Critical Needs Fund, the daily worry over a safe home will no longer be a part of that struggle.

The reality of the situation for people in poverty is that brighter futures don’t always begin with the opportunity for better education or a healthier lifestyle.

Sometimes brighter futures begin with the building of a place for them to call home.

Sponsored elder Esther sits on the couch inside the old home in Nairobi she shared with her husband and grandchildren for most of her life. The 84-year-old suffers from diabetes, arthritis and constant cold due to winds blowing down the hill to her uninsulated home.

Esther’s old homestead in Nairobi was falling in. Termites had damaged the rotting wood, leaving Esther and her family in fear that the next rains would cause the structure to collapse.

For the poor, home isn't always a place of refuge

“Home” to many people in the world means a place of comfort, with sturdy doors and walls that keep the cold and pests out. It’s a place of security where families can live, love, grow and find respite from the dangers of the world.

“Home” should be a human being’s one true sanctuary. Yet for many people living in poverty, “home” can look, and might be defined, quite differently.

Habitat for Humanity estimates that worldwide 1.6 billion people live in inadequate shelter, while an estimated 150 million people are homeless worldwide. Though most sponsored families in Unbound’s programs have permanent residences to ensure staff can keep them informed of program activities, services and communication with sponsors, that doesn’t necessarily mean their homes provide the adequate shelter they need to thrive.

Unfortunately, many families spend years living in temporary shelters or in slum communities on land they’ll never own, forever in fear of being uprooted. Depending on the country and the community, the homes families live in could be anything from make-shift, one-room shelters made of scrap metal to mud, wood or concrete houses with structurally unsound foundations, making them susceptible to natural disasters, like typhoons, mudslides and flooding. Access to sanitary running water and reliable electricity is not always an option.

It is no secret that an unstable, unsanitary and unsafe home can make for a tumultuous childhood for children growing up in poverty, and no easy path forward for creating economic opportunities for their struggling families who desire a better life for their loved ones.

In the case of the family of sponsored youth Angela in the Philippines, they had been uprooted from their home twice — once due to the government overtaking the squatter’s area the family of nine lived in, and the second time when Typhoon Ondoy destroyed their house in 2009. The family now lives in a haphazard structure susceptible to severe weather on the outskirts of Metro Manila. The dream of a better home was one of the driving factors in Angela’s mother Susan painfully separating herself from her children for 10 years as she worked overseas to provide a sustainable income.

In Ecuador this past March, a 5.8-magnitude earthquake set back the family of 18-year-old sponsored youth Josue. The family had slowly begun to adapt their old home from cane material into a stronger block and zinc structure when the earthquake hit, causing damage to the new foundation, walls and roof. Many sponsored families affected during that event, with no other option, had to abandon their homes to live in tents for a time.

In Nairobi, in the Ndeiya area where elder Esther lived most of her life, her old home that was crumbling due to rotten wood and a rusty roof only exacerbated other issues. The wind and cold blowing down from the hills to area homes had been said to sometimes cause residents to get pneumonia. Esther already suffered from other health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis. Despite her financially struggling family’s best efforts, they lacked access to the appropriate resources to make improvements to the home themselves.

A warm and safe place for Esther to shelter without fear of her home collapsing onto her family during the night was not only her distant dream, but it had become necessary now for her continued survival.

The block home of sponsored youth Angela and her family in the Philippines was damaged on one occasion by a fierce typhoon. Help from Unbound allowed the family to make their home livable again.

The home of 18-year-old sponsored youth Josue in Ecuador suffered damage to its block and zinc walls and roof during a spring 2022 earthquake that displaced many Unbound sponsored families. The families received quick assistance from the Critical Needs Fund.

When your critical need for survival is a permanent home

In 2020, in an effort to streamline several of the organization’s funds, Unbound consolidated donations received for such things as housing, health and disaster relief into one fund, now known as the “Critical Needs Fund.”

The Unbound Critical Needs Fund provides essential support to sponsored members and families during times of crisis, which could include health emergencies (such as those experienced worldwide as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic), loss of income, lack of shelter, serious medical needs or the aftermath of natural disasters. These funds are only made possible through contributions from sponsors and other benefactors, and they are often the greatest lifeline left for the recovery and resilience of sponsored families during an unexpected time of need.

Since the consolidation of funds, most allocations have been sent to Unbound’s various projects worldwide under the general umbrella of “COVID relief.” According to Unbound International Program Director Pritha Hariharan, discretion is given to staff at the project level to use the funds as they choose, with general oversight. Though no formal data exists yet on how much of the Critical Needs Fund specifically supports housing initiatives, stories abound among sponsored individuals and families about how the fund has been used at the local level to provide housing repairs, thus helping to set them on a better path forward out of poverty.

In 2021, Unbound sent $5.5 million to projects for pandemic assistance, and in 2022, over $600,000 of the Critical Needs Fund has been sent for families experiencing a crisis.

For Angela’s family in the Philippines, Unbound provided assistance in 2009 to repair their home that was damaged during the typhoon. For families like that of Josue’s impacted and displaced by the earthquake in Ecuador this past March, $9,800 in Critical Needs Fund assistance was sent to help with repairs.

Sometimes a home is beyond repair. But even then, assistance from the Critical Needs Fund could mean the difference between a family suddenly finding themselves homeless or with renewed hope.

Without assistance from the Critical Needs Fund in 2021, the family of sponsored child Hannah in Quezon City, Philippines, would not have been able to rebuild their home that was one of 15 other homes that burned to the ground following an electrical fire in their neighborhood. Their home was located in an area of the city known as a “squatter’s neighborhood,” a slum area where the streets are narrow, and the homes are built close together, often out of wood or other recycled materials. With assistance from the Critical Needs Fund, Hannah’s family was able to purchase materials to construct a new home and even added a toilet bowl to their “comfort room,” making daily living safer and more sanitary.

“Poverty hinders individuals to dream big and aim high, but with the help of Unbound, you are giving our children the opportunity to have a brighter future, to reach their dreams and have a better life,” said Estrella, Hannah’s mother. “I am so thankful to Unbound for this wonderful privilege of being one of your sponsored families.”

In Kisumu, Kenya, the family of sponsored youth Alvis received assistance from the Critical Needs Fund to build a new home to replace their old structure that leaked water from underground. Alvis’ mother, Florence, was forced to raise the family’s furniture and other possessions off the ground to keep them dry. To save on construction costs, Florence has helped build the walls of the new home herself by using the water seeping up from the floors of her old home to form mud into clay. With her family’s housing needs now attended to, she has been able to turn her attention to creating a sustainable livelihood in the form of a farming business.

“Even at night when I go to my knees to pray, I mention [our sponsors] to God [so] that he really blesses them because they have taken me from far,” Florence said. “Even if they stopped helping me now, I do not think I would find it hard to go on. … “

Sponsored child Hannah (right) takes a family photo in the alley of a slum neighborhood with her mother, Estrella, and 8-year-old brother, Leinard. The family’s home in the Philippines burned to the ground in 2021.

The new home of sponsored child Hannah in the Philippines was constructed of more durable materials with assistance from Unbound’s Critical Needs Fund.

 Florence, mother of sponsored youth Alvis, wears rainboots as she stands in almost ankle-deep water inside her old house in Kisumu, Kenya. The old homestead had unexplained groundwater that often rose up from the floor, causing Florence to have to stack the family’s belongings up high to keep them from getting ruined.

The family’s new homestead in Kisumu was constructed with the assistance of the Unbound Critical Needs Fund and is made of clay and wood. To save on the cost of construction, Florence has mixed clay with water to create the sturdy walls of the new home herself.

The closest thing to homecoming for Esther

In Unbound’s Nairobi program, social worker Alice Wambui Wainoga was approached by members of the self-help group who had concerns about Esther’s living situation. In late 2021, Wainoga visited with the sponsored elder’s family to gain a better understanding of the issue.

“I realized that the house was almost falling,” Wainoga said. “I feared that when it rained, the house might go down.”

Wainoga quickly petitioned the program accountant to see if financial assistance could be granted from the Critical Needs Fund for the construction of a home for Esther, and her request was granted.

Construction of a new home began almost immediately, and by late January 2022, Esther and her family were settled within sound walls.

Born into a family of eight children, Esther’s parents did not embrace education. Growing up, she never attended school, but made sure her own children — 12 to be exact — had the chance to study. She and her husband made their living as farmers at one time but were dependent upon donations from well-wishers and one of her working sons at the time of her new home construction.

People who know Esther describe her as a prayerful woman, with a love for people and tidying her home, but with a quietness about her.

She was quiet on the day someone asked her how she felt about her new home. The walls and roof are now made of iron sheets, and the floorplan includes two bedrooms instead of one and a spacious sitting room. Esther no longer has to worry about being cold in her own home or that the walls might collapse on her family.

She believes God sent her angels who “assisted in his work” of helping the needy. “It’s not like you did not have somewhere else to go, but God performed a miracle and directed you,” Esther said. “Now, I am just happy. I don’t want to talk much. If I continue talking, I might cry because I never thought I would ever sleep somewhere like this.”

She smiles and claps and shows her appreciation in the only way that she can — by offering a cup of hot tea so that visitors to her new home can feel happiness themselves. “May you [Unbound] and all your household be blessed,” she said.

The wood and iron frame of sponsored elder Esther’s new home in Nairobi begins to take shape. The construction of the new home was made possible with assistance from Unbound’s Critical Needs Fund.

Crews worked on the elderly grandmother’s new home beginning in late 2021 until the end of January 2022.

Sponsored elder Esther stands just outside the door of her newly constructed home in Nairobi. During the construction, Esther could often be seen cooking and serving meals to the construction crew working on her new home.

The new home built for Esther in Nairobi is made of wood and iron sheets, is structurally sound and keeps the cold air out, protecting Esther and her elderly husband and their grandchildren from illness.

A quiet, God-fearing woman, Esther claps and smiles when she is asked about her new home, invites new visitors in with tea and talks about how happy her home makes her.

To ensure Unbound can be ready to respond whenever a crisis arises in our programs around the world, and to support a better quality of life for sponsored individuals and families experiencing unexpected hardships like Esther, make a donation to the Critical Needs Fund today.

I am just happy. I don’t want to talk much. If I continue talking, I might cry because I never thought I would ever sleep somewhere like this.

— Esther, Sponsored Elder, Nairobi