Sonya Chesworth was 15 when she started paying rent. Her parents had fallen sick and, with a landlord knocking on the door, she was soon waiting tables to help pay the bills for her family.
It went on this way for more than a decade, as Chesworth moved from one rental unit to another. She described it as "a life of moving into rough areas."
But at a press conference Monday morning, Chesworth and her husband, William Anderson, told the room how a program started in 2008 by the Manitoba Real Estate Association has allowed them and their two young daughters to finally own a home.
"Just having your own place and some stability that comes with it, that's the greatest," said Anderson.
The program is called Manitoba Tipi Mitawa, a Dakota phrase that translates as "My Home," and it's meant to provide First Nations families with a chance to learn the basics of home ownership, build equity and a good credit rating and give their children a secure environment to grow up in.
MREA spokesman Harry DeLeeuw said they've helped 11 aboriginal families purchase homes in the past five years with assistance that includes one-third of the down payment and a subsidized monthly mortgage cost. Additional funding has come from the Manitoba Housing and Renewal Corporation and the federal government.
"The results have been far greater than we'd ever imagined," said DeLeeuw, noting of the six homes purchased since 2009, the average rise in value has been $25,000. "The financial returns are impressive, but the social returns are far more impressive."
There have been unexpected challenges along the way. Working with families who have an income between $25,000 and $60,000, Deleeuw said they've sometimes had to put in 10 or 15 offers before finding a house with the right price in the right neighbourhood. Even then, the process of buying the home and moving the family in can take up to 18 months of paperwork and bureaucracy.
But with the first round of funding complete, a newer and more ambitious phase of the program is underway. The MREA hopes to have 28 more families owning homes within the next five years and perhaps even sooner.
"The first five years have been a learning process for us," said DeLeeuw. "But we've put together all the systems and partners. Now we're looking to the private sector and some of the charitable foundations. Most people are looking for a track record. We now have a track record."
To prove that record, the MREA had other families at the press conference Monday to talk about their experience with Tipi Mitawa.
"It was weird, but when we moved into the house it validated our little family," said Katina Cochrane, referring to her husband and two-year-old daughter. "It showed us that we were committed to each other and we were more established. We're more invested in being a family now."