Housing Authority About More than Homes
A Stepping Stone for People, Families
On a Saturday morning last fall while dropping by his office, Frederick Housing Authority Executive Director E. Kevin Lollar and his young son decided to take a quick peek at the community garden behind the Clara R. Jackson Memorial Community Center. Minutes later, Lollar was joined by eight kids, talking and laughing with them. The children “began to eat off the plants that are growing there,” Lollar recalls. “One of the little girls said, ‘This is the first meal I’ve had all day.’ This is 10:30, 11 o’clock in the morning.”
Lollar couldn’t shake the words and told other community members who were equally concerned. The result? Local volunteers spearheaded a new program so the kids could start their weekends with full bellies. Every Saturday morning there’s a breakfast club, including a special one once a month where volunteers fill about 15 to 20 local kids’ plates with sausages, pancakes and other foods provided by the Frederick Rescue Mission. The program is one of many the Housing Authority of the City of Frederick, an autonomous organization that receives subsides from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, employs to achieve its main mission—to create thriving communities through access to education, enrichment and opportunity.
PROGRAMS AND OUTREACH
The Housing Authority has about 400 public housing units at four city sites. It owns, manages and collects rent on these properties and issues vouchers to be used in the private sector for rent. “You can wait for a year, almost two years, to get a unit or a voucher with us but, because of that, my goal is to move people in and then help those who want to help themselves move out and that way we can free up vouchers or space for new people,” Lollar says.
On a cold January morning in a colorful room at the Family Services Center on Pennsylvania Avenue, Housing Authority Education Coordinator Cindy Powell was sitting in a rocking chair reading to a young girl. Opened in fall of 2016, the center features computers so students don’t have to catch a bus to the library to write a paper. Programs are conducted to prepare younger children for school. Bookshelves are filled with titles for toddlers up to teens and there’s a piano for those interested in lessons from a volunteer. Games are available for everyone to enjoy during scheduled Game Nights.
A study by University of Kansas researchers found that children that grow up in poverty have a 30-million-word difference in the number of individual words they have heard by the time they are five from children in higher income homes. “That 30-million-word difference does not go away [later in life],” Powell says. The focus for her and the Housing Authority staff is to eliminate that gap through play groups and early learning programs. “Our goal is … when [all of the children] are going into kindergarten, they are ready to go,” Powell says.
Director of Family Services Ann Ryan says staff’s dedication to early childhood development gives the kids critical momentum before they reach the local Head Start program. “We are not just all assuming that poverty must exist,” she says. “We are assuming here at [Family Services] that there is something really important that can be done and that we are doing it.”
A big part of Brandon Chapman’s job as youth services coordinator is to create relationships with young residents. He makes visits to their schools and tracks grades for each student. He sits down with them weekly to go over their goals. He’s organized college and leadership trips for local kids and helped 15 of them get paid summer jobs through a leadership program.
“My job is to motivate and plug kids into programs that will push them to places that they never even thought they could get, or to reach those dreams that are so out in the stars that people never think come true,” Chapman says. Many of the kids he helps are on school honor rolls and are National Honor Society members. Asked why it’s important to focus efforts toward school-aged children, Chapman answers, “So they know their worth.”
On many summer days, Healthy Families Coordinator Natasha Bowens Blair can be found in the community gardens or hosting cooking classes for residents. Lucas Village has 16 plots that serve 16 to 20 families, while Carver Apartments has about eight to 10 plots. Tomatoes, kale, collard greens, peppers, corn, melons and squash are just a few of the items grown.
With a large diversity of residents, including some from Cameroon and the Republic of Congo, folks have brought seeds from their home countries. “That has been really neat to see and use as a learning tool for the rest of the community,” Bowens Blair says. “The garden is there for residents to grow their own food but it is also an educational space. We are really just trying to get at the root of health issues and food access issues that you see a lot in low-income communities.”
She adds, “We are trying to really bring back the skills of being able to grow your own food and have ownership over your food, where it comes from, and cooking your own food. We offer budgeting and meal-planning tips in our cooking classes to really help these working moms and dads and families create a healthier family for their kids.”
In an effort to improve residents’ financial knowledge, skills and stability, The Prosperity Center, a partnership with the United Way of Frederick County and the Frederick County Financial Literacy Coalition, hosts multiple programs, such as free income tax preparation for qualifying households making less than $54,000 a year. In 2016, the program helped more than 450 households.
True to its name, the MyBudgetCoach program meets for 12 monthly sessions offering the opportunity to work one-on-one with a coach and attend sessions with different financial topics. The Credit Cafe provides participants with a copy of their credit report and score for free and provides counseling to provide some insights into how the information is gathered.
“What we’ve learned with teaching these financial classes is that people are more comfortable talking about anything [other than money],” says Angie Liddiard, director of economic development. “They will talk about embarrassing medical problems before they will talk about their financial situation with friends or family. It is a very quiet topic and yet it is costing people. It is causing problems. It is keeping them from being able to get affordable housing, improve their education or save or even just be able to afford the necessities of life. These programs we have here are helping with that and it is exciting to open the dialogue and to open the conversation with people and have an environment for them to come in and feel comfortable.”
Outreach Coordinator Kiesha Edmonds works every day to make sure residents are educated, informed and have access to services offered by the Housing Authority and other local agencies that could benefit them. “I mean, everything that you can possibly think of we are trying to address to build a well-rounded healthy community,” she says. “Our job is inspiring people to think outside the box. It doesn’t matter that someone has told you you can’t do or you can’t be. You can absolutely do it. If you put the work into it, you can absolutely change your story. No matter what the story was, you can change it if you are willing to put in the energy and effort. We are here and we have all of these opportunities.”
County TransIt buses don’t run on Sundays or past 9:45 p.m. on other days, so a driver’s license can be a critical tool for finding and maintaining employment. Last year, Second Chances Garage was awarded a $9,000 grant from the county to provide 30 driver’s education scholarships. Ryan says Housing Authority residents were approved for 28 of the spots. “These tools, we forget, [take extra money],” Ryan says. “We think everybody just has them. … It doesn’t happen to everybody that easily.”
Through community partnerships, the Housing Authority annually hosts block parties such as National Night Out, an event designed to establish better relationships between law enforcement and residents, featuring food, games and music. Last year’s August event brought 300 people out at Lucas Village. “It’s a huge event, not only to educate, but a time for us to get to know one another, to get to know your neighbors, to get to know your outside community and to enjoy food and have a good time,” Edmonds says.
ONE WOMAN’S STORY
Living with family members, Kandy Alexander was working in the Frederick County Department of Social Services and going to Frederick Community College part-time for an associate’s degree in social work when her grant-funded position ended.
The mother of two decided to go to school full-time and applied for housing through the Housing Authority. Getting a voucher to stay in Lucas Village, she decided to participate in the Rotarian Initiative for Successful Employment [RISE] program where residents are given professional training on conducting interviews, help with their resume and an internship that may lead to permanent employment.
Alexander interned at the Housing Authority’s senior housing apartments, bringing in free programs to residents and encouraging awareness about local events outside the community. While going through the internship, a full-time receptionist position opened up at the main Housing Authority office and she earned the job.
Back to going part-time at FCC, she aims to graduate by the end of the year. Alexander has moved out of Lucas Village and lives in a townhouse in Frederick with a rent voucher. She is taking one of the Housing Authority’s home ownership programs that helps individuals purchase their first home and provides financial assistance. “[The Housing Authority] gave me the independence of actually having my own place where I am not sharing it with others or sharing bedrooms with my kids,” she says. “It gave me that type of security which far beats anything I have ever had.”
Alexander says her whole life she has always been a person that juggled multiple jobs. Thankful for the help the Housing Authority gave her, she has volunteered on the county’s Affordable Housing Council for the past three years. “Programs [such as food stamps, Medicaid and the Housing Authority] have helped me to step up and step out of my situation,” she says. “I realize that I need to turn around and also help others in the same situation as myself. … The public housing program is the best program I have ever known, to be honest.”
Talking to people who walk into the office, Alexander encourages them. Some tell her they don’t want to live in a community that is chosen for them. “I [say], ‘You would not believe what can happen to you if you utilize all that is there for you to help you along.’”
While driving between the Carver Apartments and the Sagner develop-ment, Lollar notes that his nickname is Mr. Clean. Not just because his shaved head harkens to the cleaning product mascot. Residents gave him the name because he helped to scrub the communities of individuals who were making poor choices.
“We have zero tolerance in our communities for any kind of criminal behavior,” he says. “A lot of folks as soon as they hear public housing they think of that and, yes, you do find that in a lot of public housing communities, even in ours at one time. When people are in a survival mode in their life, they do things to survive—underground economies—things like that. But we have zero tolerance for that and our residents know that. We try to work with people. We try to be understanding. We try to use tough love, but the bottom line is that we are trying to create great, wonderful, healthy, thriving communities.”
Seated around a table at the Family Services Center, staffers were asked their thoughts about the negative stigma sometimes placed on public housing. “This is my home,” Chapman says. “I work here. I’m here more than 40 hours a week and … we are this community. To be looked at with those negative views sometimes, as an employee who is doing whatever they can do and giving themselves to the community we live in, I can only imagine what it feels like to be a resident and to be looked at like that every day or to have those stereotypes or whatever it is, however you want to call it. You are throwing those on when you are getting dressed every day and going out to work and you have to battle that every day. That is a big reason why I personally work hard and do it with the passion that I do. The people that are in these neighborhoods are people who work hard. They love their families just like everybody else loves their families. This is a community just like any other community. … We are a stepping stone for families. This isn’t a dead end.”
Ryan believes the families and individuals who make up the public housing community are essential to Frederick. “Who is providing all the services that everybody needs?” she asks. “Who is taking care of people’s parents at the nursing home? Who is a cashier at Walmart? Who is working in the restaurants? Who is working in the early childhood development centers? It’s our residents, so what is so negative about that? I just don’t get, ‘Oh, they live in public housing. What is wrong with them?’ I just don’t get that. If people aren’t making enough money to afford the housing that Frederick is offering, it is not their fault. I just don’t get it.”
Edmonds notes the best part about their jobs is that they are privy to serve people and look past their circumstances.
“In our communities, people are here for a number of reasons,” she says. “The misconception is that all of them have decided to be here or they have done something to bring them to us. … Your circumstances do not make you any less of a person.” In her job, she gets to discover each person’s story whether it’s a stay-at-home mom who becomes single, to individuals who work low-paying jobs. “I think that is the privilege that we get,” Edmonds says. “Not only do we get to hear the stories, but we get to help and assist them walk through the journey to get back to where they want to be. They all have goals. They all have things that they want for their families. Sometimes they just need help to guide them through the process. They are not asking us to do the process for them. They strap on their boots every day.”