Earning confidence – and cash – to get back into the job market

James NewtonJames NewtonFive years ago, James Newton received a mailing from Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership (MBHP). It was an invitation to learn more about the agency’s Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program, which helps put Section 8 voucher-holders on a course towards employment and economic independence.

At the time, Newton was struggling. A widower and a single father to his 13 year-old son, who has special needs, James was unemployed after working in the computer technology field since 1981.

“I was so depressed and unhealthy,” said Newton. “I needed so much help with everything; finding a job, and help with my son. The constant communication by phone and mail is what helped motivate me.”

Today, Newton is completing his certification as a systems specialist this summer. He plans to enroll in the next certification course that will later lead him to his goal of a Bachelors degree. Newton’s dream of homeownership is now within reach thanks to the savings he’s built through the FSS program’s mandatory escrow account.

Fifty pounds lighter and healthier, Newton also credits the support he received from the program staff helped motivate him to lose weight and exercise. He continues to work on living a healthier lifestyle while working as a lifeguard.

“Some of the successes of our participants are intangible that data cannot capture,” explains David Kelley, the FSS director who guided Newton through the course.

Newton is one of the success stories of the FSS program, which is organized in collaboration with COMPASS Working Capital. The voluntary program is designed for Section 8 certificate holders, who must commit to a five-year involvement, with regular meetings and phone calls. The program connects them with resources like job training programs, resume writing, first time homebuyers workshops, GED and ESL classes.

To graduate, participants must be employed and free from public assistance for a year before they matriculate. As an incentive, participants who increase their earned income while enrolled build an escrow fund which is then rewarded in a lump sum — up to $25,000—upon completion of the program.

Funding from The Boston Foundation has now allowed the program to expand to target residents who reside in the Fairmount corridor in Dorchester and Mattapan.

Robin Valentine, a divorced mother of three who was hobbled by debt and poor credit, committed to the FSS regimen. She worked full-time to support herself and her young children.

“I am a very private person who does not like to ask for help,” explained Valentine. “When I first started, I was so embarrassed about struggling and did not want anyone to know. When you see your life on paper, it really hits you that this is what you need to do.”

The support of her immediate family has been a tremendous help, she said, allowing her to manage her work and school schedule, with time to take her son to his soccer practice and games opn the weekends.

“My next goals are to continue with school and be a homeowner,” said Valentine. “I want to be able to pass on a legacy to my children.”

Now a student at Quincy College and UMass Boston, Valentine was one of 45 people who graduated from the program on Feb. 25. District 4 City Councillor Andrea Campbell was on hand to congratulate the group.

“I am honored to be here celebrating the work of MBHP and particularly the success of the Family Self-Sufficiency Program and its participants,” Councillor Campbell said. “I thank MBHP for its mission to ensure that the region’s low- and moderate-income individuals and families have support in finding and retaining decent affordable housing and attaining financial independence.”

The MBHP self-sufficiency program is getting strong reviews for its performance. A UMass Boston report on its outcomes— funded by The Boston Foundation and published last year— found that the MBHP effort has a significantly higher enrollment rate (14 percent) than the national average (5 percent), with a higher level of escrow accumulation ($13,598 compared to $5,607).

“This success makes MBHP’s FSS program a powerful example for assessing the opportunities and challenges low-income particpants face when trying to advance in the labor market,” the report concluded.

Anyone who currently holds a Section 8 voucher through MBHP is eligible to apply, regardless of educational level, work experience, or current employment status. To learn more about MBHP and the Family Self-Sufficiency Program, visit mbhp.org or call 617-859 -0400.

Chanie Infante Louisma is a Dorchester resident with a passion for working with people. She is involved with several community programs and writes about her experiences in Boston at her blog LifeByZen. You can connect with her on Twitter: @LifeByZen.