A 33-year-old single mom working as a waitress, Heather “saved” her way out of homelessness and into her own home with the help of programs funded by United Way. Eight years ago, she and then two-year-old son Ethan were homeless – living on friends’ couches or in her car for the better part of a year. Eventually, they found their way to Community HousingWorks, which provided job training and financial education for a year.
But Heather was determined to get through the program as quickly as possible. “My son was my motivation: I wanted him to have a stable life.” She completed the course in three months, and with support and resources, she improved her credit, paid down her debt, and started saving. She also got her high school diploma. Because a caring community intervened, Heather learned how to save and manage her money. Now she’s teaching her son the same skills. Ethan knows he has to save, whether it’s for toys or college. When he opened up his first bank account with $25 of birthday money, the bank matched his deposit by putting the same amount in his mother’s account. “You have to persevere: set goals and follow through. Get on waiting lists and keep checking on them. Turn in your paperwork and stay on top of it, so that if an opportunity arises, everything’s in order.”
Fred spent months commuting by bus to the Veterans Administration in La Jolla, where he works as a recreational therapist aide, making minimum wage. The ride took over an hour, making it tough to get back downtown to City College, where he takes electronic classes. A Vietnam vet, Martinez had been homeless for five years and couldn’t secure a loan for a new car. Today, through Ways to Work, he’s driving a used Mazda-6, which he bought with an 8% loan (on his own, his rate would have tripled). Now, he can get to and from work and school, visit his daughter in Encinitas or his son in Riverside. “The car makes a big difference in allowing me to accomplish the goals that I want to accomplish,” said Martinez, who hopes to reopen a wheelchair-repair business he owned in the ‘90s. Ways to Work participants must be employed or in school and complete financial education courses to improve and sustain good credit. “This program has been a blessing for me,” said Fred, one of the first to be approved in San Diego. “It brought me together with my kids.”
For the first time in more than a decade, James wakes up in a bed, not a park bench. “I cried the first time I had my own key, my own door. I couldn’t even believe it. I couldn’t remember the last time I had this.” Once a staff sergeant in the Army, James struggled to find work and lived on the streets for 12 years. Then Project 25 found him. The public-private partnership, facilitated through United Way, originally targeted 25 chronically homeless individuals who used the most public resources. In 2010, Marsh’s medical expenses cost taxpayers $466,000, including more than 100 ambulance rides and emergency room visits. Since enrolling in Project 25, he’s down to two hospital visits for a total of $6,000. “I only knew one way,” said Marsh, “and that was the street. Now that I have the opportunity to reach for goals, it’s an inspiration.” Marsh also receives medical and mental health services. So far, Project 25 has helped 35 people – 10 more than expected – and found permanent housing for 31 of them. For James, it’s the new beginning he never had. “It’s like someone said, ‘We’re going to show you that you are somebody; that you can believe in yourself.’”
A dozen years ago, Alicia escaped an abusive husband and lived in a shelter with her four kids for four months. While there, she took every financial literacy class she could, learned to drive, filed for divorce, got her immigration papers and eventually proved she could support herself without public assistance. First, she worked the graveyard shift, stocking grocery store shelves in the middle of the night. At her 7 a.m. break, she had just enough time to bus home, get her kids ready for school, and take the bus back to work. She learned to save money: cutting her kids hair, cooking at home, scouring the sales. Alicia put away $100 a month until she saved enough for a downpayment (matched by Community HousingWorks) on a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo. Now she works in a paint store, and though she lives just above the poverty line, she is proud to own her own home. Little by little, she reached her goal of financial independence. “Being a single mom and making so little money, I thought it was not a possibility for me,” she says. “But I just had to push through.”