Stephanie Ramirez and Surri Noelle: From a shelter to a home for the holidays

It was the obvious thing to do when they opened the door to their new apartment and saw the fresh expanse of thick carpet that beckoned.

Surri Noelle, ecstatic and all of 6 years old, took off her shoes, hurled herself onto the floor and rolled everywhere she could.

“And I said, ‘That’s it. That’s what I was working so hard for,’” said her mom, Stephanie Ramirez. “This is what I wanted and what I needed to do.”

Stephanie and Surri were the first family to move out of shelter and into a permanent home of their own as part of this winter’s Home for the Holidays campaign.

They turned the key to their third-floor unit at Powell Court Apartments on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. They put a sign on the front door kindly asking visitors to take off their shoes -- to keep that carpet fresh -- as soon as they could.

“I didn’t realize all of the small things that you take for granted,” Stephanie said. “Lying in our own beds, in the quiet. Taking showers. Doing laundry.”

Home for the Holidays, launched Nov. 13, helped more than 40 families leave shelter by Jan. 15. Stephanie's apartment is operated by Affinity Property Management, one of the partners that helped launch the campaign.

Stephanie and Surri had been in Human Solutions’ family shelter system since July, waiting for the right housing opportunity to come. Their plight is an increasingly common story.

The region’s housing crisis has made affordable, family-size apartments harder to find, and families are staying in shelter longer. Many families are waiting even though they have incomes or access to subsidies that would help them thrive in housing.

The Home for the Holidays campaign asked landlords and property owners to step up and contribute available units. Overall, the effort helped 146 people, including 79 children, whose average stay in shelter had been roughly five months. One family spent more than a year in shelter waiting to get back into housing, 391 days.

In all, 27 landlords or property management companies participated. Those landlords worked with advocates from Human Solutions and two other providers, Portland Homeless Family Solutions and Community of Hope, to match vacant units to families in need.

“This is not her fault”

It’s been more than a year since Stephanie and Surri had a home of their own. Back in July 2016, their landlord lost the house to foreclosure. Stephanie had lived there for 11 years. She had even run a home daycare there, at times.

Stephanie’s older daughters, who lived with them at the time, were able to find new apartments. But Stephanie struggled to relocate. She has a disabling condition, and her identity had recently been stolen, damaging her credit. Both made it difficult for her to quickly rent somewhere else.

For a time, Surri lived with one of Stephanie’s other daughters. Stephanie paid for motel rooms until she ran out of money, then started sleeping in her car. Stephanie eventually learned about Human Solutions’ shelter. She reunited with Surri there and worked on getting her ID back and her life on course.

“Before this happened to me,” she said, “ I was one of those people” who might have judged someone experiencing homelessness. But sometimes, “there are people who just got laid off.”

Parenting in shelter can be difficult. Privacy is hard to come by. But for Stephanie, shelter also meant community and support from staffers who’d often experienced homelessness themselves. Through it all, she said, she managed to keep Surri in the same school and on track with all of her doctor’s and dentist’s visits.

“I didn’t want her to believe that was how real life is supposed to be,” Stephanie said. “It’s not her fault. This is not her fault.”

Enjoying home together

Stephanie counts herself lucky in her housing search, since she didn’t face some of the barriers looming over other families, such as evictions or debt. When the unit at Powell Court Apartments was offered, thanks to Home for the Holidays, she had a lease signed within hours.

On a recent Friday night, Surri danced in their living room, decorated with knick-knacks and furniture donated by friends. Later, she ate peanut M&Ms and watched movies, before proudly pointing out her growing collection of stuffed animals. A friend’s daughter, whom Stephanie was watching, played with her.

Stephanie worries about her disabling condition and her future with Surri. Her deepest wish is that she knows “I was here, supporting her, as much as I could.”

For as long as possible, she said, she’ll hold Surri close -- sharing the mundane things that make a home and knit a family closer together -- and give her all of the love she can.

“The small things aren’t that small,” Stephanie said. “They’re big.”