Apr. 04, 2013 @ 04:24 PM

Claudia Doster had almost lost hope of living in a proper house.

There is no heat and no running water in her tiny home on Ridge Road. Miss Claudia, 77, lives there with her two daughters who are unable to work. The three of them live in the only habitable room of the house.

Miss Claudia moved there with her husband in 1962. They raised three children and grew old together. Three years ago, a storm damaged the house.

“It fell from that tree right there,” Miss Claudia said, pointing to an oak feet from the house. “A limb fell off and made a little hole in the roof and we couldn’t get it fixed.”

Her husband, Lee, was too old to repair it himself, so the family lived life around it.

The hole grew, letting in more rain and weather. They strapped tarps onto the roof, but the cold seeped in anyway. The roof began to slump and slowly caved in. The following spring, Lee caught pneumonia and died within days. Claudia and her two daughters were left alone in a house that was falling down around them.

They live off Miss Claudia’s monthly Social Security check and the little bit she makes off odd jobs. After the bills were paid, there was not enough left for repairs.

“I didn’t want to be a bother,” Miss Claudia said. “I didn’t think there was anything anyone could do for me so I just kept on.”

Joe Penegar has known Claudia for years.

“One day she mentioned that her refrigerator broke and my wife told me to go buy her another one,” Penegar said.

Claudia told him not to bother. He insisted. Then she told him he would not be possible to get the other refrigerator out of the house because of the condition of the floors. That made Penegar ask more questions.

And though she at first resisted, she relayed the whole story about her house. Hardly believing three people could live in such conditions, Penegar went to see for himself.

“I was amazed,” he said.

Through years of friendship, she never mentioned to anyone how bad the house had gotten.

“Miss Claudia is a very private person,” Penegar said. “She told us in the past that it was a cold house.”

But older houses are commonly hard to heat. Penegar and his wife had no idea just how cold it got in Miss Claudia’s house.

Once he found out about their home, he began checking on them regularly. One cold morning in January, Penegar said he arrived at Miss Claudia’s house to deliver some food. She and her daughters were asleep in her car where they could get warm.

Penegar contacted Macedonia Baptist minister Billy Belk and Kathy Bragg, director of the Union County Community Shelter. They and other members of the Union Baptist Association visited the house. Soon, Alice Baker and Mike Reece with the Union County Habitat for Humanity got involved. Baker talked with the family and learned they qualified for a new Habitat house. The Union Baptist Association shared Miss Claudia’s story with congregations all over the region. A video posted on the internet asked people to donate money to build her a new house.

The community gave generously. Three Union County churches donated $7,500. Several individual donors gave $500 and $1,000 checks. One man walked into the UBA office, handed the office staff an envelope and left without mentioning his name. Inside was a $5,000 check.

Both Monroe locations of Chick-Fil-A held spirit days to benefit Claudia’s House. Penegar’s wife held an on-line bake sale. A little boy donated the contents of his piggy bank.

A lot of professionals and companies gave time and materials free or at cost. Professional contractors volunteered to get the build site ready. The soil tests and septic plans were done for free. One company sold concrete to Habitat at cost.

And the fundraising is not over. Lakeview Baptist Church plans a housewarming party for Miss Claudia to get her set up in her new home. Neighborhood Nurses, owned by Penegar and his wife, will have an April 13 yard sale benefitting Claudia out in front of their Rocky River Road office.

This kind of outpouring is common among community volunteers, especially with more people needing help.

“The recession hurt a lot of people,” Reece said.

About 2,000 Union County residents currently live in substandard housing, Reese said. That number is based on United Way data collected a few years ago that found 5,000 county residents live at or below the poverty line. Some live in older mobile homes and others in rental properties.

“These are people who work at Tyson or Pilgrim’s Pride or some of the farms in the area,” Reese said. “They’re supporting a family on minimum wage. It’s taking 50 percent or more of their monthly income to pay for housing and probably can’t afford something better.”

Rental homes are inspected to make sure they are safe for inhabitants, Reese said, but Union County has only one code enforcement officer and Monroe has two. There are often too many needed inspections for such a small staff, he said.

“And then some of those 2,000 are elderly residents who own their house, but can’t afford to maintain them,” Reese said. “They live off their Social Security check. If something happens and they need to put a new roof on the house or get major repairs done, most can’t afford it.”

Most Habitat clients do not know they qualify for housing help. Even Miss Claudia was amazed so many were willing to help.

“At one point, she told my wife that she had no hope of getting it fixed,” Penegar said. “Human beings just can’t live without hope.”

Soon, Habitat volunteers will frame the walls of Miss Claudia’s new house, just yards away from the old house. It will have energy-effecient appliances to keep monthly bills low. Inside will be warm and safe, something that the family has been without for far too long.

And the lady of the house is quietly excited to move in.

“Oh, it will feel quite nice to be in a warm house,” Miss Claudia said. “I sure do appreciate all that’s been done for me.”

Though agencies like the Union County Department of Social Services, Council on Aging in Union County, the Union County Community Shelter, doctors, clinics, churches and food banks share information on families in need, there are still thousands of people living in substandard housing. If you know someone who might qualify for help through Habitat for Humanity of Union County, contact Alice Baker at 704-296-9414.