Shanairia Gaines, left, talks about receiving help from Neediest Cases alongside Samantha Strader, a Families First representative. Gaines now lives in an apartment away from the rat infestation of her previous abode.

A day after Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke announced a new plan to address homelessness, Samantha Strader and Shanairia Gaines celebrated how a single, $350 gift solved the housing crisis Gaines and her three children faced in April.

Strader is a graduate of Vanderbilt who provides family counseling for Families First, a state temporary assistance program that seeks to help adults in struggling families find employment. Gaines is a young mother of three who dropped out of high school when learning disabilities created a barrier to continuing her education.

For her 33rd birthday on March 22, Gaines was given an eviction notice from the house she was renting using a Section 8 voucher. The home was infested with rats and the owner said Gaines would have to leave for repairs to be done. By the end of April, Gaines and her children were living day by day with relatives or in a hotel room paid for by her church while Gaines searched for housing that would accept her voucher. Section 8 is a federal program designed to help lower-income individuals afford housing and is administered by the Chattanooga Housing Authority.

"It wasn't a happy birthday," Gaines said.

Strader said Gaines was wrongly accused of causing the rat infestation and was forced to seek renewal of her voucher at a hearing at the Chattanooga Housing Authority.

"With all that was going on, that was hard for Shanairia," Strader said. "Her pastor came and spoke for her."

In May, Gaines found an apartment complex that had a vacancy accepted her voucher, but while her voucher would pay the monthly rent, it would not pay the $350 deposit on the new apartment.

Enter Strader.

"Miss Samantha kept telling me not to give up," Gaines said.

"Stop that," Strader said. "You are going to make me cry. You did the legwork to find the apartment. You came to the classes and sessions. You found work."

Families First is administered locally by the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults. The Partnership reached out to the Neediest Cases Fund for the $350. Chattanooga Times Publisher Adolph Ochs started the Neediest Cases Fund in 1914 to help local people in financial need with one-time donations intended to help people get back on their feet and to prevent a crisis. The United Way manages the fund, screens recipients and issues money.

With the help of Love Fellowship Baptist Church, Gaines will begin her second week on the job Wednesday with ABM, the custodial service for the Hamilton County Department of Education. Her school is Woodmore Elementary, where she works from 2:30 to 11 p.m. while her mother cares for the children. Gaines receives support from another state program, Vocational Rehab, which provides employment-focused rehabilitation services for individuals with disabilities. Getting her GED is part of her personal responsibility plan with Strader and Families First. Gaines' children — aged 13, 11 and 8 — are in school and doing well.

The inner workings of the social services network in any community can be as complex as an organization chart for a Fortune 500 company, but Gaines and Strader came together and reduced the complicated network down to its simplest, one-on-one form.

"I wasn't sure what was going to happen to us, but Miss Samantha and my church helped me," Gaines said. "(In five years) I hope to be in a house. I want to see my kids going good in school and graduating. I want to keep working, pay my bills, take care of my children and be closer to God."

Strader beamed as she listened to Gaines talk of the future.

"It's a privilege to work with Shanairia," Strader said. "It is great to see her move into her own apartment, to keep moving forward."

Contributions to the Neediest Cases Fund will continue through December, and you can donate to the fund online, visit

Conact Davis Lundy at