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Pearl Fisher and 35 other participants in a program have been able to pull themselves out of dire financial straits and improve their lives.
REBECCA BARNETT | The Roanoke Times
Pearl Fisher’s participation in a self-sufficiency program helped her straighten out her finances enough to allow her to move from public housing to buying her own home in Roanoke. “Sometimes we need a little helping hand to get to the places we want to get to,” she said.
REBECCA BARNETT | The Roanoke Times
Pearl Fisher has lived in this house in northwest Roanoke for a year and a half. The goal of having a house of her own kept Fisher and her family focused on their budget.
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
For Pearl Fisher, the toughest part was walking down the aisles of a toy store in the weeks before Christmas — or perhaps the kids’ and grandkids’ frowns on the day itself.
At the time, she was living in public housing, at the Villages at Lincoln. She had made a promise in order to get a place in the newly renovated complex: to participate in a five-year program that aimed at getting her out of public housing. It meant figuring out better ways of spending money — and, especially challenging — how to save money and clean up a messy pile of unpaid bills.
“We went without some things,” Fisher recalls. “We weren’t going to go without Christmas, but the kids got only two or three things instead of six or seven. … I told them Christmas was about love.”
The frowns that flitted across their faces didn’t last. Everyone in the family knew what the aim was: to have a house of their own.
Now they have one.
“When we were renting, moving from here to there, I’d go around the neighborhoods and look at the houses and think about how much I wanted to be a first-time homeowner,” Fisher said. “Now we have a home that’s always going to be there for them.”
But it was a stretch, paying the monthly bills with the work she’d been doing since high school: a caregiver who helps the elderly and people with disabilities at their homes.
When she couldn’t stretch a paycheck quite far enough, she tended to forget the bills she didn’t pay. They piled up, until by the time she moved into the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s Villages at Lincoln, she owed about $8,000, and didn’t really know how she would manage to repay them.
That was more than five years ago. The authority had just renovated the half-century-old Lincoln Terrace housing project. It demolished 145 of the 300 apartments. At the 155 that remained, it installed new wiring, heating, plumbing and insulation. It moved interior walls to open up space that had been fairly cramped apartments, and added front porches. The authority also built 10 duplexes and 26 houses that tenants could eventually earn their way to purchase.
But one condition of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department’s $15.1 million HOPE VI grant for the work was that people moving into the renovated units participate in what it calls a family self-sufficiency program.
The deal is this: five years in public housing, taking classes in budgeting, credit and home maintenance, followed by sticking to a budget and building up a nest egg of savings. The program offers help if participants need a hand boosting their work skills or job-hunting techniques. Participants set specific work, budget and savings goals, as well as a plan to get off any kind of public assistance.
So, the authority helped Fisher pay for a class to earn her certificate as a phlebotomist — someone who can safely draw blood, a valuable addition to the credentials she already earned as a certified nurse assistant.
The authority also helps participants build a nest egg. It requires all tenants to contribute more to their rent as their incomes rise, but for participants in the program, the authority puts that extra money into a special savings account.
The idea is that after five years, the nest egg, new budgeting skills and a better job will give people a chance at buying a home or moving into rental housing at what the local market demands. But after five years, if participants aren’t at that point, they have to move from the Villages at Lincoln.
Success in the program isn’t easy. Still, 20 people, including Fisher, have been able to buy a home. Another 16 moved to rented homes, paying the full rent themselves.
Kiffaney Johnson said she and her family no longer get any public assistance and are earning their way to buying one of the new houses at Villages at Lincoln. The combined effect of the renovation of buildings and a program to renovate families’ finances is creating a new kind of community there, she says.
“My father-in-law says it used to be called ‘Brick City’ and was the worst project in the city,” she said.
Now, though, “This is a really nice place, we like it here.”
Of those who didn’t make it, 30 moved out of Villages at Lincoln, using the federal Section 8 rent subsidies that the Housing Authority administers. A total of 27 were evicted, 14 left the area, 14 died and nine fell so ill they had move to a nursing home or assisted living facility.
“Although a 100 percent success rate would be the optimal, the program has helped a significant number of people meet educational and employment goals, achieve higher income, and move from public housing to homeownership or market rate rental,” said Glenda Edwards, the housing authority’s executive director.
Fisher, in addition to picking up some janitorial work on top of the caregiving jobs her agency sent her on while in the program, took a particularly bold step while in the program.
“I’d keep hearing from some of the people I cared for: ‘Oh I don’t know how I can afford $16, $20 an hour,’ ” she recalled. “I thought, I can do that for less.”
So, she took the plunge, and went into business for herself.
She focuses on people at risk of losing the help they need with personal care or housekeeping because money’s tight. Sometimes, there’s so much work, she spreads it around to other caregivers she has come to know well after more than two decades of doing the work.
“I don’t like just sitting around,” she said. “I’m going to be a caregiver until I can’t walk anymore.”
A year and a half ago, Fisher took another plunge: buying a house.
She’d cleared up her debt, was building up her nest egg and sticking to her budget. She was busy with caring for people, managing her business and picking up janitorial work. She had tightened up spending. She would mix-and-match clothes her sister and nieces gave her instead of going to the store.
“I don’t want to say I never got my daughters anything, but it wasn’t Apple Bottom jeans or new tennis shoes every three months,” she said.
For herself, though, there was only a new uniform or work shoes every once in a while.
“There’s nothing wrong with hand-me-downs,” she said. “Look where hand-me-downs got us.”
Fisher still sits down every other week at the kitchen counter with a pile of current bills and checkbook and carefully checks to see whether she’s on budget. She’s already thinking about how she’s going to afford going to college, as she hopes to next year, and is thinking about helping her oldest daughter afford a house in the next few years.
The family’s on a routine now — though on Valentine’s Day her husband Reginald made a small break from the program. When they started the self-sufficiency program, they had stopped giving each other gifts at Christmas or other holidays, trying to make sure their shopping budget stretched for a couple of Christmas presents each for her two daughters, her two stepdaughters and eight grandchildren.
But on Valentine’s Day this year, Reginald brought her a bunch of roses.
“I thought we weren’t doing this,” she told him. And he told her: “Just look what you accomplished.”
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