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AUBURN — Stacey Arnold got a lot of nice gifts for her 4th birthday. But the best gift of all, she said, was her new home. 

On Friday, March 24, after being homeless nearly her whole life, Stacey and her family moved into a new permanent housing unit in Auburn. 

Located in a quiet, circular community off of Merriman Street, the Arnolds' new two-bedroom home is one of 28 housing units for local families and women who have experienced homelessness. Established by the Auburn Housing Authority and Auburn Rescue Mission, 20 of those units offer permanent housing — renewable year-long leases — while the rest are transitional units where families can stay for up to 90 days. 

After years of shuffling between relatives' homes, hotel rooms and transitional housing, Stacey's mom, 28-year-old Candice Arnold, said the new neighborhood — dubbed Merriman Circle — has been a blessing.

"This is the fifth time we've moved in seven years," Candice said. "It's been very exhausting. ... But when we moved in here, it removed a lot of stress." 

In January, the Cayuga County Department of Social Services had placed Candice and her daughters — 7-year-old Jasmine and 4-year-old Stacey — at the Auburn Inn on McMaster Street. At the time, the Arnolds were one of 15 local homeless families living in hotels and transitional housing throughout the city. 

"It's very difficult for families to find housing here in Auburn," said Raymond Bizzari, the director of community services at Cayuga County Mental Health. "We lack safe, affordable housing in general, but particularly for families." 

"There's no shelter in Auburn for homeless families," added Gary Mann, program manager at the Auburn Rescue Mission. "For years we were running around nonstop trying to house people, and most of that housing was substandard. ... Four walls don't mean anything if you don't put meaning into them." 

That's why the housing authority and rescue mission partnered in 2011, Mann said — to provide safe and supportive housing for homeless families. And in 2015, work on the multi-million dollar Merriman Circle community began.

Construction on the housing units took around 18 months to complete and cost $6.4 million. That was covered by a grant through the state Homeless Housing and Assistance Program, which provides capital funding for homeless housing in the state. 

In addition to the 28 permanent and transitional housing units — which can house up to 108 people — the community consists of a community center, a private drive and a playground. All one-, two- and three-bedroom units come fully furnished and the cost of utilities is included in rent, which is generally a third of the family's income. 

"This will allow us to move quite a bit of families into safe and affordable housing," Bizzari said, noting that Cayuga County Mental Health has partnered with the Auburn Rescue Mission to provide additional case management and support for families at Merriman Circle. "I think this is going to be really important for families to stay together, stay functional and not have their lives interrupted too much." 

So far, seven families have moved into permanent housing, Mann said, and soon, seven more families will join the community, filling two permanent spots and five transitional units. All of the families have been referred to the Rescue Mission by social services. 

"It's all about finding the best fit for a family," Mann said. "This isn't the answer for everybody. ... This is still a program and we want to make sure somebody wants that and can use that." 

Candice and her family have come to believe it was the right choice. Since moving into Merriman Circle last Friday, Candice has found childcare for Stacey and signed up to get her GED. She starts classes next week. 

"Living here means a lot to me and my family," she said, smiling. "It's very exciting. I'm just so glad that I'm here, and I'm not going anywhere anytime soon."

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Staff writer Megan Blarr can be reached at (315) 282-2282 or megan.blarr@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @CitizenBlarr

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Crime and Courts Reporter