DEGRAFF — Just a regular guy from DeGraff is on a mission to change the world, or at least try to help lift people out of homelessness and rebuild their lives.
Helping worthy, motivated, homeless people obtain and buy homes, find jobs and get back on their feet to become productive members of society again was an idea that “just hit” Jerold Smith recently while driving through the Smoky Mountains in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, with his family on vacation.
“I’ve noticed in Ohio there is an abundance of two things: homeless people and empty houses. I understand the point of homeless shelters; I get it. But to me that’s just putting them in a position to survive. That’s not helping them to get better, right?” Smith said. “So why not buy a house (at an auction), take an individual or family, depending, and put them in that house. Give them a month with no bills basically to try and find a job. And ideally, at least to start, I thought about bringing (people) to Sidney, because there are always jobs in Sidney.”
Smith believes homes could be purchased at auction for about $25,000 to $30,000, and then his plan is to refurbish and furnish each one with basic necessities. His goal, he said, is to help people who are “real” about changing their life situation, who have found themselves in hard times.
“I felt compelled to do this. And I’m sure there are plenty of people out there that will say it’s never going to work, but it isn’t about them. It’s bigger than them and me. And if this isn’t what God wants me to do, I’m sure he’ll show that to me,” Smith said about being practically “obsessed” with the idea since he thought of it.
The eventual goal of the nonprofit organization Smith named Project Phoenix is for candidates to start paying bills after the first month and then have the opportunity to buy their homes on land-contract. He hopes it will give recipients a sense of pride and purpose.
When asked what inspired the idea, Smith, who installs gas- and pellet-burning stoves and furnaces for a living, said he loves helping people. He also shared that there were times in the past when he had “been close” to becoming homeless himself. He said he feels that he understands the struggle. The married father of three also said he wants to teach his sons about humility and bettering themselves.
“I don’t mind reaching out to the people (at local businesses), because I know you need references to get a job. I know you need work history. So maybe if I explain to the presidents of these companies what’s going on, they would give them a chance,” he said. “I think that’s why its important to find the right candidates. Because you want somebody who is going to want to do that. You don’t want to just put him there and have it all fall on his face. And that’s why I think families will work a little better, because you have something to work for.”
Relocating candidates from homeless shelters in larger areas like Dayton or Cincinnati to Sidney, Smith believes, will not only put them in a place where jobs are plentiful, but could help them feel a sense of community that could be missing in a larger city.
“(Finding) somebody that would appreciate it and take full advantage of (the program) as opposed to saying, ‘that’s a vacation.’ And I’m not naive enough to think it’s going to be 100 percent success rate, because we know better. But that’s my goal,” he said.
Currently, Smith is in the process of filing to become recognized as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization for tax exemptions. After that step is completed, he plans to actively begin seeking donations. His goal is to raise $1 million in donations to fund Project Phoenix’s initiative. He plans to develop a website for transparency, so donors can clearly see step-by-step how their funds are being used.
“When you think about it, $1 million, to me, is a huge number, but it’s nothing anymore. I mean people are spending that on their third yacht. Why not help people? One person at a time; one family at a time,” he said.
“I know ($1 million) sounds like a lot of money, but unlike other organizations in which only a very small amount of donations actually go to the cause, I’m only going to take 10 percent to live off of and focus full-time on the project,” Smith said. “I want to put my all into it and be hands-on in all aspects, from interviewing candidates, to buying, remodeling the houses and helping people get the help they need whether it be physical or mental doctors to see, and help people.”
He admits the nonprofit organization is still in the “infant stage” and that he is very open to receiving advice.
Before candidates would be allowed to start the journey, Smith said, they will be required to pass a drug test and continue to do so until the house is paid off. He said that although he wants to help people and recognizes that often drugs are the reason many people are homeless, he is not interested or equipped to deal with addicts. Smith also said individuals who have a drug or violent offense charge within the last 10 years would not be selected to participate.
“Homeless people get this wrap for being bad people, and that’s not always the case. There are some, but not always. So, what I envision is helping a family, and they are going to pay that forward anytime they can help somebody. I would think as a human they would. And it’s kind of a snowball effect in that aspect,” Smith said.“And there is no limit as to how big it can get. I’m starting in Sidney, Ohio, but who’s to say in 10 years we don’t have places in New York, Boston, L.A. that are doing the same thing and are all connected.”
For more information about how to get involved, Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Reach the writer at 937-538-4823.