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Tiny houses, big hearts

Chris Wilson runs the Dream Center to help people escape homelessness, but fighting client discouragement is a constant battle

Dream Center founder Chris Wilson stands in the Opportunity Village of sponsored tiny houses. Photo by Sam Cranston/Genesis

Tiny houses, big hearts
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One night in 2013, too few people were on hand to serve meals at the soup kitchen that operates out of the Dream Center. Founder Chris Wilson saw a client who’d been coming for about a year and asked her to help out. The woman, 37, said no, she didn’t want to help serve plates, but Wilson insisted. At the end of the night, she surprised Wilson by saying, “I wish I could do this every night.”

For Wilson that was a lightbulb moment. She realized clients need opportunities to “understand for themselves that they have a purpose greater than a handout.” And it helped explain why the center, up to that point, had seen so much failure. Well-meaning Christians had established it in 2012 as a nonprofit with a mission to get jobs for homeless people. But they were disappointed when the people they served repeatedly slipped back into old habits and lost their newfound jobs and housing. Something had to change.

Part of the answer came that evening in the soup kitchen. The rest came as the staff got to know clients and read the book Toxic Charity. They examined what they had been doing—giving away food and clothing—and began giving clients the chance to earn those things.

They designed life skills classes and gave clients eight Dream Dollars for attending each one. Clients could spend their Dream Dollars on food, showers, and other essentials available at the ministry. Instead of fast-tracking the search for jobs and housing, the ministry focused on restoring clients to physical, spiritual, and mental health. “When we started doing that, it was unbelievably crazy the way it worked,” said Wilson. “Suddenly, we had people who were keeping their jobs and doing well.” The shift happened just in time: “We were about to throw our hands up and say, ‘Forget about it.’”

In 2017, Wilson and the board codified the lesson they’d learned into six core values: “Jesus first. People matter. Our jobs are important. Our team matters. Be set apart. Great things never come easily.” To make sure the values drive the details, subpoints under each value spell out concrete examples of the value in action. Under “People matter” it says, “Communicate. Make eye contact, call people by name.” Staff members read the core values before every meeting with three or more people and hold one another accountable to follow them.

ONE THURSDAY MORNING in early July, nine students shuffled down the center’s hallway, passing orange signs identifying classrooms, restrooms, child care, and the soup kitchen. In a classroom, they sat 6 feet apart on metal folding chairs. Teacher Jeannie Truman leaned against a wooden podium, greeting each student by name. “Where’s Hattie?” she asked. “We haven’t seen her for a month,” a woman answered.

Truman has taught Bible at the Dream Center for four years. A friend convinced her to volunteer, and her first class had 60 people. Truman felt overwhelmed, because she’d never taught a Bible study before. But she stuck with it and over time learned to connect with students: “A lot of it is listening to their stuff because they don’t have a lot of people in their life.” She’s also learned to simplify her vocabulary because her students may not have a lot of education.

Truman took the class through the first half of John 6, reading from a phone app while the class followed along on paper. She drew out applications connecting Scripture to the lives of her students: “What does this passage teach us about God?” “What does this passage teach us about what man needs?”

Two years after changing its model, the Dream Center was doing well: Volunteers saw clients becoming healthier and holding on to jobs. Demand increased for the center’s services, but housing became a problem, and the county had no homeless shelter. Chris Wilson didn’t want to start one: Caring for people 24/7 intimidated her.

Then two unsolicited grants came in—one for $200,000 and another for $100,000. The donors designated the grants for a shelter, which convinced Wilson and the board that God was calling them to embark on this new path. They designed the Opportunity Village, a development of 23 tiny houses where homeless people can live for one year while taking classes, receiving counseling, and getting job experience.

They weren’t sure how much demand there would be for the housing, so they built the tiny houses according to height regulations allowing them to transport them off-site and sell them if no one came. “That was fear,” Wilson says. “One of my biggest things for eight years has been letting my faith and my trust be stronger than my fear.”

A volunteer leads a course on “Everyday Theology.”

A volunteer leads a course on “Everyday Theology.” Photo by Sam Cranston/Genesis

THE OPPORTUNITY VILLAGE opened in the end of 2016, just in time for Jason and Deanna Smith.

In the summer of 2017, the Smiths were living in a tent in a friend’s backyard, eating from a dumpster, and experiencing methamphetamine withdrawals. Over the previous four years, ever since Jason had started using meth as a way to deal with persistent knee pain, they’d struggled to hold their lives together. Deanna started using and eventually quit her job as a customer service rep for Walmart. They lost their families and sold their possessions, bit by bit, to support their addictions. They fought over whether to use their money to pay rent or buy more meth—and over which one would get the last hit.

When their landlord finally evicted them, they had nowhere to go but the tent. Deanna became depressed: “All I wanted to do was sleep. … I didn’t care if I laid in there and died.” Jason dreamed of his wife lying beside him, not breathing and a voice saying, “You don’t have to live like this anymore.” When he woke up and found her alive, he knew something had to change.

They called the Dream Center, and on Oct. 4, 2017, Jason and Deanna Smith moved into adjacent tiny houses in the Opportunity Village. They attended church and Celebrate Recovery groups, worked in the Dream Center’s resale stores, and took classes that taught practical skills: finances, parenting, and communications. Each met separately with a case manager, financial coach, and “care coach,” a Biblical counselor from an organization called JC Cares. They paid rent with Dream Dollars.

At first, the program was very hard: “You’re giving up all your freedoms, and you’re still in your worldly mindset,” Deanna Smith said. She unrooted old habits and replaced them with healthier ones: Instead of smoking, she reminded herself that her body was a temple for God, and instead of drugs, she learned to go to the Bible for hope and comfort. “When I learned to surrender to the Lord, He began working on my heart and transforming the way I thought and lived,” she said. “The staff at the Dream Center encouraged me daily, and I saw how they were and wanted to be like them.” One of the biggest breakthroughs for Smith was learning to forgive her stepfather who abused her as a child.

For the first month, she missed living with Jason, even though she understood they needed time to focus on their individual problems. She would lie in bed facing the wall nearest his house and pray for him. At Thanksgiving, the staff surprised them with a bigger house they could share.

Deanna Smith is now in a position to help others. The next summer, she finished work one day and saw a new woman sitting with her head down in the cafeteria. “I just remember seeing her looking so defeated, and I remember being there. I just wanted to help her,” said Smith. She came up behind the woman, hugged her, and said, “Welcome!” That was the start of her friendship with Debbie Crawford.

CRAWFORD, A WIRY WOMAN, has short hair, glasses, and a traumatic story: Her drug-dealing husband kicked her out, and she moved into a shack in a pasture. A woman from a local church helped her find a house for herself and her son, then in his 20s. But early in 2018, Crawford received a call that a police officer had shot and killed her son.

That started her on a downward spiral: heavy drug use and a suicide attempt. Her church friend helped her get into the Opportunity Village in July. At first, Crawford kept to herself, but when Deanna hugged her, she said, she “could just feel something different.” The two became close friends, and Deanna encouraged Crawford to read the Bible. Crawford saw that Smith’s life had radically changed and thought, “‘If God’d do all that for her, maybe He’ll do it for me too.’ When I surrendered to God, He started piecing my heart back together.”

Not everyone who starts the program graduates (the graduation rate is 50 percent, though Wilson said 85 percent of graduates maintain healthy self-sufficiency). Staffers recently dismissed one woman whose drug test came back positive after a family visit. They gave her a second chance, but she was unwilling to change. Even those in the program who are willing to change can experience major discouragement. Founder Wilson spoke of the need always “to remind them who they are and whose they are, because they easily want to fall back into discouragement and think that they’re not worth it.”

Those—including Deanna and Jason Smith and Debbie Crawford—who graduate from the program have a full-time job, a car, and money in savings. From the Opportunity Village, graduates can move into 10 off-site transitional houses for the six-month Bridge program. They continue to meet with their financial and care coaches to manage money and stress, while paying reduced rent with real money.

The Smiths and Crawford work at one of the Dream Center’s three resale stores. Contemporary Christian music plays as the ladies sort donations and stock the store. Sometimes they pray with customers who browse through shelves of dishes and racks of clothing.

Life after the Opportunity Village has not been painless: In February, Crawford had an emotional breakdown on the anniversary of her son’s death and ended up in the hospital for two weeks. But Crawford said she left the hospital with thankfulness for ordinary blessings like birds and trees and a new desire to read Scripture.

Chris Wilson said the Dream Center cannot take credit for the success: “There’s not a single person who successfully graduated who was not leaving here as a follower of Christ,” she said. “So there’s no denying what truly changed their life.”

Deanna and Jason Smith reminisce about their time in the Opportunity Village.

Deanna and Jason Smith reminisce about their time in the Opportunity Village. Photo by Sam Cranston/Genesis

Pandemic complications

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Chris Wilson struggled with the decision to close the organization’s three resale stores, as they provided nearly 70 percent of the Dream Center’s income (private donors, community grants, and churches supply the rest). All the stores closed on April 27, and it was financially devastating, according to Wilson. Donations dropped, too, as supporters lost jobs. Wilson said she ­prioritized personal prayer time, and “I had confidence from the Lord to do the right thing no matter what and let Him worry about the outcome.” The Paycheck Protection grant provided a lifeline to the Dream Center, restoring the lost income so it could keep paying store employees.

The Dream Center provided food two nights a week, and staffers drove to check on regular clients with food bags and masks. All public classes stopped as the staff focused on the 10 Opportunity Village residents, all mothers and their children. Staff members ordered nap pads and took turns babysitting so the parents could continue the program. The ladies in the program sewed more than 3,000 masks, supplying them to Chick-fil-A and a local manufacturer.

Classes now are two mornings a week, and the stores have reopened with safety measures. Deanna Smith and Debbie Crawford have been overrun with shoppers and donations. “I think when everybody was at home, everybody was cleaning out because they didn’t have nothing else to do,” said Deanna. —C.K.


2019 income: $2,263,394

2019 expenses: $2,067,042

Paid staff: 11; ­volunteers: 920

CEO’s salary: $65,385

Website: dreamcenterpc.org

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty-fighting and criminal justice. She resides with her family in Atlanta.



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