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International youth fight poverty housing by exploring its reality


Marissa Massiah of Guyana and Mario Eguia Sauma of Bolivia learn what it is like to shop for food on a low-income single mother’s budget.



Rev. Larry Mathis explains how his neighborhood became overrun with crime and neglect.

Youth from around the world have gathered on the site of Habitat’s 200,000th house to build with its future owners, Koffi Kouassi and his wife Tonya Harper. But they have also gotten a rare look into the reasons Habitat for Humanity’s work is needed in the Five Points neighborhood of Knoxville, Tennessee.

These youth, from Paraguay, the Czech Republic, Bolivia, Guyana and the United States, spent a morning touring the Five Points neighborhood with long-time resident Rev. Larry Mathis, who is the founder and director of Pacesetters, a local Christian community outreach center. Rev. Mathis painted a gritty picture of poverty in Knoxville, pointing out the nightclubs where drugs feed into the neighborhood, the condemnable houses without electricity, and the residents idling on their front porches from lack of employment and lack of hope.

”Somebody has to want to get deeper and build relationships,” Rev. Mathis reminds the youth.

Knoxville Habitat for Humanity is working to build these much-needed relationships in this community. Rev. Mathis is careful to balance his tour by also pointing out the Habitat homes that are popping up on formerly abandoned lots, injecting a sense of homeowner pride back into the neighborhood.

Rev. Mathis gave these future Habitat leaders a stark reality check on the subject of low-income families’ struggles. He took them to the local Dollar General, where most Five Points residents do their grocery shopping because there is no better alternative. He gave them twenty dollars and challenged them to do a week’s worth of grocery shopping with it—for a single mother with three small children.

”I really had to think about it,” says Marissa Massiah of Guyana.

The students tried to fill their buggy with nutritious, cost-effective foods that would stretch. This was a challenge: They had to think about the kinds of meals they could put together with simple, cheap ingredients and found that nutrition would have to be partially sacrificed.

”It was another confirmation that it’s just really tough,” says Vesta Popova of the Czech Republic. “If you use your money the wrong way, you might not eat.”

The morning with Rev. Mathis brought to light some of the more subtle factors feeding into the poverty housing cycle. Lack of reliable transportation means that few residents can leave the neighborhood to find higher-paying work; blighted vacant lots and homes inspire few businesses to put down roots; exposure to a culture of drugs and violence blinds local children to their potential to become educated, productive adults.

But there is hope for revival here, a chance to take this neighborhood back. The hope lies in working together, with community leaders like Rev. Mathis telling the story of their neighborhood’s needs, and Habitat volunteers like these students responding to that need by building simple, decent shelter where it is most needed.