Ciciley never imagined the day she would be labeled homeless.

But there she was, filling out paperwork at Chandler City Hall for housing assistance because she was facing eviction.

Ciciley is a college graduate, a woman who a year earlier had been married, in a home with two full-time incomes coming in and planning for the stereotypical American dream for her family that included two children.

"Then the marriage fell apart," Ciciley recounts. "I moved from my girlfriend's house to a place of my own in Chandler and was commuting back and forth to work in Phoenix every day and then I got laid off.

"Life just threw me a curveball."

In what Ciciley called a hint from God, she noticed a flier for House of Refuge on a bulletin board that day at City Hall. She called the number.

"I knew everything was going to work out," Ciciley said.

Ciciley's story is a common one at House of Refuge, a transitional housing program for the working homeless, who more often than not are single women with children trying to retake control of their lives.

"We say on any given day, about 70 percent of our clients will come from a domestic violence background," said Nancy Marion, House of Refuge executive director. "They are trying to get on their feet so they can get their families back to a stable place.

"We battle that ‘homeless' stigma all of the time. The majority of homeless in America are families or single women with children. Average age of a homeless person is 9, which means there are a lot of homeless children."

House of Refuge is unique in its family oriented arrangement. It started in 1996 when the base chapel and 88 homes at the former Williams Air Force Base in southeast Mesa became available.

Nestled next to Arizona State University's Polytechnic campus, the House of Refuge neighborhood houses 80 families at any given time, with five houses being used for various purposes. There's a donation center, a resource center and a maintenance building, as well as a donation drop-off center and an activity center for the children. Marion said that at any given time, three of the houses are being "flipped."

"We come in, put new paint on the walls, scrub everything down so it looks as new as we can make it look when a new family arrives," Marion said. "It's a matter of dignity for our clients. Everywhere you go around here, we maintain a standard that lets our clients know that this is the standard and this is how we expect you to keep your house while you are here, and how we expect to see people act."

Marion said she gets between 150 and 175 inquiries from people seeking help. If her organization can't take them, there is a network of organizations and facilities that she can refer them too. However, there isn't nearly enough help.

"Studies show there are 30,000 homeless in Arizona and with all of our facilities in the state, we can help 14,000," Marion said.

Unlike the typical homeless shelter that houses people in barracks or apartment-style quarters, each House of Refuge family has its own two-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot home, complete with a stove and refrigerator. Anything else a family needs House of Refuge provides through its donation center.

What also makes House of Refuge different is its requirement that every client be employed or on unemployment and actively seeking a job. Residents have 45 days from their arrival to find work - otherwise, they cannot stay.

"It's a working homeless community and I think that's why people are so supportive of what we do," Marion said. "It just goes with that old saying, ‘a hand up, not a handout.' "

The requirement that people must work to stay there and the fact that there are children involved makes House of Refuge an attractive beneficiary for local businesses and charities. On Friday the Zanjeros, a civic organization based in Gilbert, will do a community clean-up and cook-out in the neighborhood that will feature games and activities for the children. The Zanjeros are just one of many groups that help raise the $1.3 million needed to operate the facility with 23 full-time employees, including some former residents.

Marion said that when House of Refuge was "just in the middle of cotton fields, cotton as far as you could see," finding jobs and transportation to those jobs was very difficult. Now that the area has developed with a wide variety of industries, it's been a boon for her residents.

"We have developed a great relationship with many of the businesses nearby," Marion said. "It's really changed for the better with all of these new opportunities."

Residents can stay as long as 24 months, but Marion said the typical stay is between seven and 12 months. She also said the organization has a 96 percent success rate in getting families into their own residences.

That success is due to the amount of support that the residents receive. House of Refuge provides case managers for each resident to help build a plan that will allow them to be successful when they leave the center. Residents also have educational training, job training and parenting classes. House of Refuge is also linked with the Maricopa Workforce program and helps residents with resume writing as well as computer and interview skills.

"They are required to do so many educational hours while they are here, parenting, problem solving, budgeting, finances; different areas like that," Marion said. "We love all of our clients, but just like us, they have to prove that they've done what they've been asked to do."

"You have little things that go into your normal day," said another House of Refuge resident, Joann. "You have your meetings with your case manager and classes that you are required to take. Classes are encouragement, encouragement to be something better."

For Joann, that encouragement has continued to pay off as she is in her final year of classes at ASU, where she is studying to become a teacher.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6815 or

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