- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 12, 2006

Thirty-three-year-old single mother Rose remembers the scratchy feel of a food stamp in her palm and the embarrassment she felt as she used it to purchase groceries so that her son wouldn’t go hungry.

The Olney resident said she slipped in and out of the welfare system for years as she struggled to scrape together funds for her college classes and the electricity bills for her two-bedroom Silver Spring apartment on a yearly $9,000 salary.

“I had a dead-end job, not making enough money for the cost of living, to support myself and my son,” said Rose, who asked that her last name not be used. “It was just poverty from check to check.”

But thanks to the Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program, a federal welfare-to-housing program offered through the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission, Rose — like hundreds of other Montgomery County residents — has within the past year forged a remarkable turnaround.

She now has a good-paying job as an administrative assistant for an accounting firm, the keys to a three-bedroom town house and a new lease on life.

Created 12 years ago, Montgomery County’s FSS program provides an avenue for families in public housing and Section 8 programs — most of them black single moms — to reduce their dependency on welfare and steer their lives down a path of educational and financial success, home ownership and independence within five to seven years.

Participants voluntarily enter contracts outlining milestone dates for personal goals, which they must complete in order to graduate. They team with a caseworker who guides their progress and refers them to education, job training, counseling, child care, transportation and other support services. Families build savings in escrow accounts used to buy homes.

The Montgomery County program is part of a larger federally mandated Housing and Urban Development project created by the first Bush administration that in 15 years has given more than 52,000 single moms and families the opportunity to realize their middle-class dreams.

Statistics show the Montgomery County program has changed lives.

Ninety-five percent of participants are single parents, and about 30 percent are on welfare or unemployed.

Many lack high school diplomas and job skills, struggle with illiteracy, face language barriers or suffer from low self-esteem, organizers say.

But a third of the program’s graduates in Montgomery County have risen from unemployment or welfare assistance to self-sufficiency, and about 82 percent took job skills or education training. Graduates, on average, triple their incomes.

More than 100 of the county’s total 447 graduates are homeowners.

“To live in Montgomery County is not easy. It’s not a particularly cheap place to live [so] our record for helping get them into home ownership in an expensive area like this is really remarkable,” said Lillian Durham, director of resident services. “They need time more than anything else, and this program allows them to have that.”

Lagena Smith, an FSS graduate and mentor who lives in Silver Spring, agrees.

“I had things really stacked up against me,” said Miss Smith, 36, detailing her rise from a welfare recipient to a consulting firm receptionist logging $28,000 a year to deputy director for facilities at the District-based law firm Williams & Connolly, where her income is fast approaching six figures.

“I got pregnant at 16 [and] left home at 17,” she said. “I was considered a statistic … but I’ve succeeded, and I haven’t even reached my career peak yet.”

Her contract goal was a bachelor’s degree, but Miss Smith did the contract one better, earning a master’s in business administration. The child care services allowed her to attend night classes while she worked her way up the corporate ladder.

Miss Smith bought her first home in March 1999, using the budgeting skills taught by her FSS mentor. Today, she lobbies for continued FSS funding on Capitol Hill.

“It can be done,” she said. “We just need to help people and that’s what I try to do: I tell people all the time, if I can do it, you can do it.”

Rose, who landed a job within four months of attending an FSS resume-writing and interviewing workshop, attributes her success to the support from caseworkers, mentors and participants.

“The workshops, they meet you at your level [and there’s a] common bond that us single women have,” Rose said. “We’re single parents trying to get ahead.”

Despite the program’s success, organizers worry federal budget cuts may stifle the little-known effort.

HUD cut back FSS funding after Congress initiated an across-the-board reduction of 1 percent, said Jeff Lubell, executive director of the D.C.-based Center for Housing Policy.

“The effort to reduce the costs of the Section 8 voucher program is in some ways putting pressure on programs like the one in Montgomery County,” he said.

He emphasizes that the effects are likely unintentional.

FSS “has a track record of success but it’s fairly small in size, and it’s not really on anyone’s radar,” he said. “I hope once [Congress and others] realize it, they’ll fix it.”

So does Rose.

“If they cut [the program], it’s just going to be more women on welfare,” she said.

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