Realtor Hannah Angert had never met Shannon Rowell until Monday, but she had a nickname for her: Mz. Fierce.
It was the only way Angert could think to describe the single working mother of four who was one of the most tenacious people she'd ever met — even before she learned that Rowell's painstaking journey through the first-time home-buyer process had left her and her four kids temporarily homeless, couch-surfing first in her mother's apartment and then in the living room of a generous aunt's already-packed rowhouse.
Angert had actually represented the seller in the transaction. But when she learned that, in the chaos of four settlements that collapsed at the last minute due to financing and other issues, Rowell had lost almost everything she owned, Angert decided to go online and throw her a big, virtual housewarming party.
"When I saw the paperwork, I knew she was IN for the homeowner fight," she wrote on Facebook. "Fast forward, and I learned yesterday that during this month leading to closing, Mz. Fierce was [storing the few possessions she had left in] her car and saving toward … an empty house. So, today I come to my community to ask for a little boost for Mz. Fierce, who I respect so deeply."
So, on Monday, after Rowell's fifth and final settlement conference finally went through, Angert accompanied her back to the North Philadelphia rowhouse. While Rowell struggled with the keys, Angert scrolled through all the donations from friends, friends of friends, and strangers.
"I'm going to have to create an Excel spreadsheet," she said. "So many offers are coming in."
A South Philadelphia developer had brought over an envelope full of cash: $500. He wanted the kids' beds taken care of immediately — and, Angert said, they will be. A fellow agent at Angert's brokerage, Space & Co., offered up a stylish dining table with six chairs. There were offers of couches and coffee tables, shower curtains and silverware. Angert started making specific requests, or politely suggesting gift cards would be welcome instead.
"Instead of just running to stand still, she's going to be able to take a huge step forward instead — that was the hope," Angert said. "I think what's so beautiful about the whole thing is, it's really just a very little boost that people need, and she can kind of fly away on her own."
As Rowell stood in the middle of her empty living room for the first time, she wasn't quite sure what to do. It wasn't yet clear what she needed, and what would be arriving over the next few days.
She's not one to take charity, she said. "But now, I get to do something for my kids."
First on her list were bicycles, to replace the ones lost in the series of moves. She had specific orders: "Pink and purple, to be sure. Blue, with training wheels."
It was the culmination of an epic journey for Rowell, an 11-year employee of Sodexo, a large food-service contractor, who set her sights on home ownership three years ago. She did her research and she'd saved — first $200 a week, then $300, then, through some extreme household austerity measures, $400 — until she had enough for a down payment on a $75,000 house, with a finished basement she could turn into a "man cave" for her 14-year-old son, and three bedrooms for her and her three daughters, aged 6, 8, and 13.
"I was originally trying to surprise my children. I wanted to surprise them with a fully furnished home," she said.
But then, the deal for the first property she planned to buy fell through after the seller wouldn't agree on needed repairs — well after she'd already given her landlord notice. She had no place to take her things, and no extra money to spend on storing them.
"I had to let them be a part of it. To see me crying and being emotional, I didn't want them to think it was for no reason," she said.
She thought she'd find another place quickly, but then repeated issues with her loan paperwork torpedoed the deals.
They stayed with her mother for a while, but a longer visit would have violated the lease and landed them all on the street. Fortunately, she has an aunt who's the type of person who'd let you stay in her bathtub if all the couches were occupied.
Through it all, her kids never lost faith. And when Rowell started to lose her resolve, she would go by the rowhouse with the big bay window and the cozy front porch, and reassure herself by looking at the "sold" sign Angert had posted there.
"I'd drive past the house every couple days and tell my kids, 'This is your home.' "
Still, Rowell didn't let herself believe the sale would actually go through until Monday morning, when she sat down at the table to sign the papers at last. In fact, it almost didn't — there was yet another glitch with her loan last week, and she only met Angert in the process of trying to sort it out with help from the third in a series of loan officers.
"I didn't want her to lose the house," Angert said. "I believe her loan experience would not have been the same if she were buying a $250,000 house, and that made me really angry. It doesn't need to happen this way, and experiences like hers are discouraging to other women who are not as strong as Shannon is."
Rowell's just grateful and relieved that the process is finally over, and her family's future in their new home can finally begin.