Editorial: Cold welcome for Habitat families

New neighbors should show more support for families in Habitat for Humanity homes

Shavonn Smith, left, visits recently with Ashley Beshears and her daughter near the lots where their Habitat for Humanity homes will be located. Habitat’s executive director said it was on Smith’s lot where racial slurs were found in the grass on Aug. 12. (Angela Deines/The Capital-Journal)

As members of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis marched through the streets of Charlottesville last month, their message of racial hatred was echoed more than 1,000 miles to the west. On the day of the violent white supremacist rally in Virginia – which left one dead and 34 injured (two state troopers also died when their helicopter crashed during the chaos) – someone spray painted racial slurs at the site of Shavonn Smith’s future Habitat for Humanity home in Topeka’s Rolling Meadows neighborhood.


When Smith was informed about the racist graffiti, she says she “wanted to cry. We’ve worked really hard to get to where we are.”

However, when she thought of her children, this sadness quickly became exasperation at the fact that someone would express mindless prejudice toward her entire family without knowing anything about them: “My kids deserve this. This house wasn’t given to us. They’re not just bringing random people to the neighborhood.” Smith shouldn’t have to prove to her new neighbors that her family is an acceptable addition to the community (is this something we expect of anyone else?), but it’s worth noting the rigorous process that Habitat for Humanity property owners go through before moving in.

Janice Watkins is the executive director of Topeka Habitat, and she says tenants undergo 11 months of financial education, credit counseling and “sweat equity” before they own their new home. Each adult family member (in this case, Smith and her husband) must invest 300 hours of work on the home, while children over the age of 12 must work for 50 hours. As Watkins notes, “They have to complete half of that before we even start working on their house.”

While the graffiti is horrifying and unacceptable, it isn’t the only problem that Topeka Habitat families face (three of whom are moving into Rolling Meadows). According to Watkins, “Conversations with neighborhood leaders have been filled with undertones of the impoverished bringing a ‘criminal element’ to the neighborhood and overt commentary of Habitat homes and families bringing down the overall quality and value of the neighborhood.” Tony Emerson represents District 4 (which encompasses Rolling Meadows) and he says his constituents were “shocked and disgusted” by the racist graffiti, but they “wanted to make sure the homes will fit into the neighborhood.”

Fred Martinez is the president of the Rolling Meadows neighborhood association, and he hasn’t responded to requests for comment. While we don’t know who was responsible for the graffiti, is it really that difficult for the president of the neighborhood association to condemn such a blatant act of racism in our community? Wouldn’t this make Smith’s family feel more welcome? Emerson denounced the slurs and described Rolling Meadows as a “great, close-knit neighborhood,” but how could the new arrivals share that view when residents are worried that they might be bringing a “criminal element” along with them? Watkins says a property owner “weed whacked” the graffiti, but he or she refused to help Topeka Habitat file a police report in fear of retaliation. Shouldn’t good neighbors show a little more backbone than that?

At 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 13, representatives of Topeka Habitat and future tenants will be at a build site 3331 at S.E. Powell. Smith will be part of a group that goes door-to-door to meet future neighbors and provide information about the housing program. She hopes this will help them “understand it a lot more. We just want to be part of the neighborhood.”

Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.



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