The Ortiz Family is starting over after Hurricane Harvey, a fire, and an eviction caused by the coronavirus.
Johni and Jeremiah Ortiz have been together for seventeen years, and married since 2007. Together, they have five children, ages 12, 10, 9, 5 and 1. Their family has overcome many challenges, most recently a loss of income due to the coronavirus.
“We went from being homeless together on more than one occasion, we went from our good times, we went from being separated, we went from having a house fire, going through Harvey. We’ve gone through some things,” said Jeremiah.
We met the couple at Houston Furniture Bank as they selected furniture to replace what was lost in a recent eviction, related to the current coronavirus pandemic. As with so many Houstonians, for the Ortiz family, the coronavirus is one more challenge in a list of many, stressing families and resources that are already under strain even under normal circumstances.
Johni visited Houston Furniture Bank with her Volunteers of America caseworker, Migueluis, who has been bringing families to Houston Furniture Bank since 2011. Volunteers of America Texas is a faith-based, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping veterans to find and maintain employment. Migueluis has been impressed with Johni’s tenacity:
“She’s had bad luck over the years through no fault of her own. No matter what challenges she faces, she never gives up. She always manages to get a job.”
Johni and Jeremiah have a gentle way with one another. They met long before they ever became a couple. In fact, Jeremiah was interested in Johni way back in middle school. “She never noticed me,” he chuckled. “We sat right next to each other. We were the last two on the bus.” Jeremiah even remembers Johni’s dress at their prom; “It was sparkly and she had her hair in braids. She looked beautiful,” he told us. Johni and Jeremiah eventually became a couple once both were out of school. Within a few short years of getting together, they had fallen in love, gotten married, had their first child, and Johni had enlisted in the military. The two worked hard to build their future together as a team. While Johni was in the military, Jeremiah played the “daddy role.” “It made sense for our family,” said Johni.
For years after completing her service, Johni did not self-identify as a veteran. “I thought you’re not a veteran if you haven’t been to war and you’re not older. I used to say ‘I’m prior military,’” she told us. It wasn’t until the family’s home was flooded in Hurricane Harvey that she first realized that she qualified for some benefits. Like so many Houstonians, the Ortiz family lost their possessions in Hurricane Harvey. After the storm, their landlord sold to FEMA and the family was displaced permanently. The couple was able to select the furniture they needed to begin anew at Houston Furniture Bank, working with their caseworker from Volunteers for America. The Ortiz family was one of over 3,500 families to receive furniture from Houston Furniture Bank through Hurricane Harvey assistance programs.
Only five months later, the apartment complex where the family was living caught fire. Johni received a call from a friend who saw it on the news and they rushed to the scene, concerned about the family’s two dogs, Diamond and Honey. Fifteen units were destroyed by fire and water. Miraculously, both dogs survived, though Diamond suffered from a cough for a week due to smoke inhalation. Once again, the family lost all of their belongings and had to start over.
When the coronavirus hit, the family was living in a 4-bedroom home. Johni was working as an outreach coordinator for dental and doctor’s offices, doing corporate events. She lost income when the virus closed offices and events, and they were unable to pay their bills. Johni quickly pivoted careers, beginning to work as a home healthcare aid. But she went from working a salaried position to making $9/hour, and could only find part time work. “When COVID happened, we lost income. We couldn’t afford our rent,” said Johni. “April and May, we got behind on rent. I started reaching out to organizations for help. I had half the rent.” But relief did not come in time for the Ortiz family. Their utilities were cut off and they were still trying to pay their rent. Of the landlord who evicted them, giving them only 20 minutes to gather their possessions, Johni said, “They were probably hurting for funds as well.”
Even after losing everything more than once, the couple still took pleasure in selecting furniture for their family at Houston Furniture Bank. Johni said,
“I enjoy it. I do. I enjoy giving my children the comfort of knowing they have a bed, you have somewhere to sit down and eat. But in the back of my head, I always think, this is all material, it can go in the drop of a dime. I know that doesn’t sound too pleasing, but I’ve lost so many times so I just think that God keeps on blessing. The main thing is we have our family.”
The couple has learned to roll with the punches and continues to work as a team. “You have to stay focused,” said Jeremiah. “A lot of stuff happens in the world. You can’t always determine what is going to happen next. You have to adapt to the world, adapt to life, adapt to different situations, adapt to what’s thrown at you.”
Johni and Jeremiah try not to share their struggles with their children, so they can focus on being kids. When they didn’t have a place to stay after the eviction, they did their best to keep it positive. “I don’t cry in front of my kids. I stress, I worry, I get nervous, but I try not to let them see,” Johni told us. When the family found shelter at the Salvation Army, said Jeremiah, “My daughter called it ‘the hotel’ and we just went with it.”
When we asked the couple which furniture items they are most looking forward to being delivered, they responded in unison, “the beds!” For about a month before we met, the family had been sleeping on air mattresses. Before moving in, they slept on floors and couches, staying with friends. Both adults are looking forward to some relief from back pain. “I cannot wait to lay down in the bed,” Johni told us. The kids have been having fun with their air mattresses, however, taking advantage of their portability to have sleepovers in the living room and filling the house with laughter. The couple selected beds for each child, including a special race car bed for the youngest. These beds were provided as a part of the “No Kids on the Floor” program, which enables Houston Furniture Bank to give away new, twin mattresses to children in need, thanks to monetary donations from the public.
Another furniture item that the couple is looking forward to taking advantage of is a wooden table and chairs for the dining room. The family has been eating their meals in the living room and Johni is looking forward to getting everyone around the table. Jeremiah is known for his delicious burgers. Johni told us, “His last name is Ortiz and everyone calls him “Chef Boy Ortiz!” Johni, whose mother is from New Orleans and who visited Louisiana during the summers of her childhood, told us that gumbo is her signature dish.
Today, the Ortiz family is doing well. They have moved into a new home and both parents are working. Jeremiah works at Wildcat, making hospital gowns. He told us they have gone from 50 to 1,500 workers in three months, making 800,000 gowns every day. Johni is still working as a home healthcare aid, working part time and looking for full time work. The children are gearing up for remote learning this fall. This spring and summer, the family was getting by with one device to share. When we spoke to them, they were optimistic that the school district would be able to help connect their kids with additional devices to facilitate their education.
Houston Furniture Bank is proud to serve families like the Ortizes and veterans like Johni. We agree with caseworker Migueluis that “‘Homelessness’ and ‘veteran’ should not be two words in the same sentence.” Every month, over 100 families receive assistance through Houston Furniture Bank’s partnership with over 45 agencies. Houston families face poverty, mental and physical health concerns, homelessness, domestic violence and disasters. The coronavirus is only the most recent disaster to affect Houston families who have already overcome so much. According to the advocacy group Children at Risk, one of every three children in the Houston area is living in poverty. A recent report found that as many as 40 percent of rental households could be at risk of eviction. As federal, state and local government policies evolve on this issue, what is clear is that an unprecedented number of families will be in need of assistance this year. Organizations like Houston Furniture Bank, which provide services year in and year out, are seeing an increase in need. Please consider donating your gently-used furniture or a monetary donation to the ‘No Kids on the Floor’ Program. Thank you for Making Empty Houses Homes for Houstonians like the Ortiz family!
Special thanks to the Ortiz family for sharing their story with us.