A well-heeled hound heads out to visit his friends and neighbors one day, only to find some of them have become homeless through a series of misfortunes. 

“Everybody Deserves a Home” is a new children’s book that illustrates who can be affected by homelessness, and how individual and community efforts can help change lives.

The colorful characters and short story may seem an overly simple way to depict a real-life hardship that affects many, but author Maia Cooper hopes her book would make a small difference in any community.

Cooper said she wrote the ending about two years ago, because the same lines kept coming to her that “it doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like, but you deserve a place that fits you.”

After finishing the preliminary story 18 months ago, she began sending her draft to publishers, finishing with submissions to more than 120.

“I got so many rejects. I got about 60% emails back but a lot said develop this story more, develop the characters more, explain the different types of housing needs,” she said. 

Others, she added, liked the story but did not want to use her illustrator. That was a no-go for Cooper, who had asked her college roommate Valerie Valdivia, who helped her develop the story.

“I said I would never not work with her, and now since the book got published, some of the publishers reached back out to her,” Cooper said. “Now she is a regular illustrator, including for those who have authors with stories but no artist.”

Cooper, who has family in Bluffton, lives in Ohio, and is vice president of development for Woda Cooper, a development company with emphasis on safe, affordable and quality housing. The company has recently built housing in Beaufort and Jasper counties, and has an office in Savannah.

It was her experience providing housing for veterans who experienced chronic homelessness that brought home the point that people have a misconception about who the homeless are.

“In my job, I help find the qualified allocation plan in the states where the company operates. That’s a roadmap for where that state wants their affordable housing,” she said. “In one community, we met with groups who said there was a critical need for veteran housing. There was a need to give them a chance to have a safe place to live, and a chance to get on their feet.”

Initially there was a pushback from those living in and around the proposed neighborhood about housing homeless veterans, but Cooper said the company was able to change attitudes.

“Once we put a face on the homeless, and brought in the veterans who were down on their luck and their families, it changed peoples’ minds,” Cooper said. “I thought, how about if we do the same thing with children, and explain to them challenging housing issues in a simple way? Because really, in general, that’s what children are seeing. A lot of children are experiencing housing insecurity or are seeing children in their classroom struggling to have a place to stay, so it’s not a foreign concept to them.”

Affordable Housing Finance News, one of the resources Cooper uses, wrote a feature in December about the book. That helped her spread the word from California to Washington, D.C., and when that issue hit the desk of an employee at the D.C. Housing Finance Agency, Cooper had an immediate sale.

“She wanted her small children to read the book and see that she does work similar to the main character to help developers build housing for working families,” she said. “Affordable housing can be an investment to help rebuild communities affected by natural disasters. This job has changed my life. It’s really community organizing within the company. I don’t do that alone. There’s a whole team of people.”

Prior to the pandemic, local data indicated there were 68 homeless or transient households, consisting of 126 individuals countywide. 

Ben Boswell, Beaufort County Human Services administrative manager, said that the numbers for 2022 showed there were 73 individuals who were unsheltered homeless or imminently expecting to become homeless. Out of that number, 20 were children, 37 adults, 12 seniors, and four with unrecorded ages.

“These numbers seem low compared to previous years – and it’s mostly because of all of the COVID-related assistance that has gone out the past two years. Those funding streams are drying up with many expected to end this spring or summer,” Boswell said.

Cooper’s book, “Everybody Deserves a Home,” can be found on the shelves at Bluffton’s Storybook Shoppe on Calhoun Street, as well as at everybodydeservesahome.com. Not only does the book tell a story, there are several online resources listed on the last page for grown-ups to check out.

“It really does put a face on the people who need houses – the post office worker, teacher, grandparent. They deserve a place to live where they work, and near the library and school and stores. They shouldn’t have to drive two or more hours,” Cooper said. “My hope is that it begins conversations so we can improve the problem, and engage younger generations to fix this situation.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.