- Associated Press - Saturday, November 14, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Sherrell Thompson has a full-time job. She owns a dependable, used Chevy Suburban. She smiles when she sees it parked outside her home in South Richmond.

She cooks dinner Sundays through Thursdays for her middle son and daughter, who attend Armstrong High and Binford Middle, respectively. On Fridays and Saturdays, they can order in or eat out.

Things haven’t always been this way.

Just over three years ago, she was white-knuckling her way through life, laid off and living in one of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s public housing communities for the second time.

The second time will be her last, says Thompson, who remains an authority tenant but resides in a stand-alone home. Like her mother before her, she has decided that she won’t go back.

She has savings, having freshly graduated from a federal program that allows tenants to recoup a portion of their rent set aside in escrow contingent upon the completion of several goals that take years to accomplish.

Armed with two semesters toward a criminal justice degree and the $9,000 she recouped through the program, Thompson is feeling positive.

But life is precarious for a single mother.

First, it was a house fire, then job loss that led Thompson to seek refuge from the uncertainty under roofs in Gilpin Court and Richmond’s East End.

At 37, she says she is better insulated from the stops and starts of life than she was at 18, when her lot was first thrust into chaos.

“There are just certain things you never forget,” Thompson said, of the day she moved her toddler son into a Gilpin apartment.

He was fresh out of a three-day stint at the now-defunct Richmond Memorial Hospital for pneumonia. An electrical fire had ripped through the home she shared with her mother, Janet Tyler.

“We didn’t have a cup, we didn’t have a blanket, we didn’t have a sofa. Nothing. We didn’t have a towel - I couldn’t give him a bath,” Thompson said.

When asked for advice, Tyler, who grew up in Gilpin, told Thompson not to knock on her neighbor’s door to borrow sugar. Thompson laughs about it now.

Tyler said the community is not what she grew up with.

“I don’t really know what happened. Everybody looked out for everyone else. Everyone raised everyone else’s children,” Tyler said. “It’s not about public housing though, it’s just people, I think.”

Thompson was gone in four years.

At 22, she moved from a low-wage job at a Community Pride grocery store to a customer service position at Bank of America and moved her family from Gilpin to a privately owned North Side apartment complex.

She transitioned into a two-bedroom home with the arrival of her second son, then a three-bedroom home in the Fulton area with the arrival of her daughter. Thompson worked in successively higher-paying customer service positions until a contract position was abruptly terminated, casting her back into uncertainty.

Thompson said she lived off her savings for about six months before making the call. After the fire, she qualified for quick placement. The second time, a spot did not open up for about three months.

“At first, I was depressed. I used to tell my mom, ‘I hate pulling up every day. I don’t even want to come home sometimes, I’m just so depressed,’?” Thompson said.

She would find work where she could, but often positions were temporary or as-needed. Thompson said she would see people standing on the corner in their pajamas when she headed to a job in the morning who looked like they hadn’t moved when she returned hours later.

“It was just sad,” she said, “and I was like, ‘I have to get out of here.’?”

The federal Family Self Sufficiency program Thompson completed is designed to help public housing residents achieve their goals and move off government assistance, according to Lisa Wolfe, a regional spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“It’s a soup to nuts program,” Wolfe said. “It provides one-on-one coaching to help people achieve their goals.”

Thompson’s goals included clearing her credit, completing a semester of college, maintaining employment for a year and not using government benefits such as food vouchers. She would regularly check in with a coach who helped her stay on task.

She finished the five-year program in half the time.

Funds provided by the federal housing department to qualifying agencies support staffing to administer the program, which nine RRHA residents have completed in the past five years, according to the agency. A similar program has had 10 graduates in the same time frame, and a combined 57 RRHA residents are currently enrolled in either one.

“If you want it and you work hard for it, there’s nothing that can stop you, but you,” Thompson said. “Whatever might be in your path, you have to focus, because at the end of the day, the reward is worth it.”

The money that successful program recipients receive upon completion comes from the difference between their pre-program and rent payments and payments based on a higher rate that is calculated from increased income.

Residents put 30 percent of earnings toward rent, Wolfe said, and the amount goes up when earnings rise.

“It’s not penalizing you for making more money,” Wolfe said, which can be concerning for residents working to improve their position.

Thompson said she has seen firsthand how fear and a lack of trust can drive decision-making.

“I think the majority of people are just so scared to step out there,” she said. “We have to stand up and be determined to turn our life around.”

Thompson now manages the housing complex where her mother grew up; the home Tyler once loved but pledged not to return to with her own three children as a single mother also trying to get by.

It’s hard to cling to hope in the grip of fear, she said.

“I think sometimes people are so busy living that they don’t think to the next moment. You can’t even bear to get to tomorrow - it’s, ‘What am I going to do to take care of today?’?” she said. “Some people can’t dream. I’m sure I wasn’t dreaming back then.”

Tyler and her three daughters are setting aside money for a trip to Australia to celebrate her 60th birthday. She has always wanted to see the rain forest.

Thompson’s daughter, Montajha, 11, wants to go to Paris one day.

“You’ll get there,” Thompson said. “Just keep saving.”

___

Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.timesdispatch.com

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