- Associated Press - Monday, March 17, 2014

HOUSTON (AP) - After leaving her drug-addicted husband, Monica Johnson hoped becoming a paralegal would save her six kids from growing up in homeless shelters.

It did for a while. Her employer, affiliated with Enron, ordered massive layoffs, and the scandal tainted her résumé. She lost her income and, again, her home, so she moved her family into a hotel and sought rent assistance from the Houston Housing Authority. Waiting in line for a voucher, she discovered hope when she overheard someone talking about the Family Self-Sufficiency program.

“I had visions of Section 8 - people get on it and people live on it forever and 30 years. No way to get out and up. I was gonna be that girl,” Johnson, 43, said. “When I heard about FSS, I was like, ‘OK. Maybe I can be somebody different.’”

The goal of the federally funded program, created in 1990, is to lessen reliance on public assistance. Families sign a five-year contract with caseworkers at their local housing authority to work toward increasing their income and eliminating other barriers to self-sufficiency. Housing authorities provide referrals for social services, urge progress on goals and offer classes on budgeting, home ownership and college.

When Johnson entered the program in 2010, her goals included becoming a nurse and buying a house.

“Does this program actually work?” Tory Gunsolley, president and CEO of the Houston Housing Authority, asked.

He believes it does and says he soon could have proof. Houston is one of several cities selected for a new federal study to measure whether the success of graduates is tied to the program itself or if it simply attracts people who, unaided, would move themselves out of government assistance anyway. It is the first time random applicants are being tracked from enrollment to graduation and compared to a control group.

Gunsolley hopes the study’s results could bolster arguments for Congress to expand funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs program.

The Houston Housing Authority provides rent assistance to 18,000 households, but federal funds only allow 540 to enroll in the self-sufficiency program.

Harris County Housing Authority CEO Tom McCasland said his agency, too, has encountered funding limitations as it tries to start its own Family Self-Sufficiency program. He said he has been told the federal agency can afford to pay for part of the program costs, but not the salaries of four caseworkers to work with clients. McCasland said he is negotiating with private donors to fill the gap.

“We think this is a significant opportunity to move families up and off our program into a place where it ends the generational cycle of poverty these families have been caught in,” he said. “I’d like to focus on tenants who already have jobs - that minimum wage job that puts them at 30 percent of the area median income - and figure out what it takes to get them into that middle-skills job where they can earn $50,000 a year.”

The Houston Housing Authority says the program frees up voucher funds for the thousands of needy families on its waiting list by helping current clients build a better life.

While most welfare recipients lose benefits as they earn more income - making it difficult to save - participants’ rental assistance is fixed until graduation. Money that families would have paid in extra rent is instead paid by the federal government into an escrow account to gain interest until graduation.

Many plan to use the savings toward a down payment on a home.

On average, graduates from the Houston program double their annual incomes, from $14,246 to $27,879, and leave with $3,000 from the escrow account.

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