Moving out of Poverty

Advocates for Homeless Families serves families, strengthens community

By Nancy Luse | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 04.10.15 – Diversions, Lifestyles, People & Places

The chill outside says anything but spring, but inside a meeting room at All Saints Episcopal Church, advocates for homeless families clients are charting out their gardens, planning on grid paper where to put the radishes, lettuce and green beans. Just as they will be planting seeds toward a productive harvest, Advocates staff and volunteers are planting seeds with clients to nudge them into a life with jobs that can meet their bills and skills that will continue to keep them on track and serve as an example for their children.

Many organizations and government programs routinely promote the concept of “a hand up, not a handout,” says Advocates Executive Director Ken Allread, but, “we really mean it …. underlying it all is accountability.” It starts with participants signing a five-page document agreeing to such things as getting a job, attending school, participating in parenting and financial classes, and volunteering in the community.

Rent on the homes clients are provided is 30 percent of their income and there are ongoing property inspections. In 1988, Advocates began with just one rental apartment, since growing to 15 residences, 12 owned by the organization, one donated by a church, another endowed by an individual, as well as one subsidized by the federal government. “We could easily use 20 houses,” Allread says. Currently, 98 families are on a waiting list.

The organization accepts single and two-parent families who must be Frederick County residents and have custody of one or more children. “We verify what we’re told,” Allread says. The average age of clients is 32, most with two or more children. The majority are single parents, including a father raising three boys. Of the 15 participants, there are two two parent households.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which monitors such programs, Advocates has a 95 percent success rate. Between March 2009 and last June, 98 homeless individuals moved from the program into permanent housing, with just five returning to homeless shelters. The program’s successful format is being considered for other parts of the country.

“We’re very proud of our program,” says Allread, who has held his position for three years, preceded by two years as an unpaid staffer. A former federal government worker, “I sat home for three weeks after I retired and decided it was awful,” so he joined the cause, prompted by “a passion for the work we do and the human capacity to endure and thrive.”

Allread says many of the clients have little to no family support and there seems to be much generational poverty. Some are domestic violence victims or have had foreclosures on their homes. “There are people who have made bad life decisions. Most come to us with no money, frequently no car, and some with just the clothes on their backs. We have people with felony records, drug histories and truly on-the-street homelessness.”

Advocates has an annual budget of $370,000, Allread says, 90 percent of which goes directly into the program. One-third comes from state and federal dollars, another third is from its foundation and the remainder is private donations from individuals, civic groups and houses of worship. “We have an excellent partnership with other nonprofits,” he says. Advocates’ staff of six includes case managers, counselors, a property manager, accountant and administrative assistant. Allread is the only one in a full time paid position.

“Is that our house?”

Joy Wiggins has a history that has touched on many of the reasons people seek out services such as Advocates. Her marriage failed and she and her four children hid in a shelter until the court awarded her custody. A stint of recreational drug and alcohol use got out of hand. “I have to get out of this,” Wiggins recalls thinking. “I have babies.” Despite having a college degree, jobs weren’t paying enough and there was no child support from her ex-husband.

She moved from Virginia to Frederick to work for her aunt, who was starting a business, but then the aunt became ill. Wiggins was needed to care for the aunt and the business faltered. At the time, Wiggins and her children, now ages 7, 15, 16 and 17, were living in a two-bedroom, $1,250 a month Frederick condo with a $300 monthly electric bill. With her aunt’s eventual death and no job, Wiggins was soon evicted for not paying rent, landing in a hotel that was just as expensive.

Between March 2009 and last June, nearly 100 Advocates for Homeless Families’ Clients moved into permanent housing.

Through a community resource person at her children’s school, she discovered Advocates,
and after being on the list for a year, moved into one of their houses. Wiggins recalls pulling up in front of the three-bedroom home and one of her daughters, her eyes wide, saying, “Is that our house?” She says she was every bit as astonished as the kids. “I think it is.”

Clients are allowed two years in the program, three if they need more time to finish their schooling. Wiggins will be finished at the end of the year, the same time she is scheduled to graduate from Frederick Community College where she’s studying to be a paralegal. Wiggins’ previous degree in “organizational leadership and management” wasn’t compatible with today’s job market. “A paralegal can make $45 to $65 an hour. I want to be self-sufficient,” says the woman who once dreamed of going to law school.

Steering clients to better-paying jobs is part of Advocate’s mission. The education component they offer can range from client’s earning their GED to classes at FCC and Hood College. Along with her class load, Wiggins works as a pharmacy tech, a job that requires testing to remain certified. On her latest test she admits being a bit over-confident, only to fail, but now she’s been carving out time late at night from her FCC studies to be ready and “my kids are quizzing me.”

She can’t say enough about how proud she is of her children who are all doing well in school, with the older ones also holding down part-time jobs. One daughter just made the lacrosse team at her school. “They’re finding stability,” she says. “I need to get to where I need to go and I need to make sure they do, too.”

Advocating a holistic approach to the problem of destitution, Allread says children are a large piece of the puzzle. Case managers monitor the youngsters’ academic and socialization gains. Summer programs are offered and a “good grades party” is held at the end of school. Groups such as the Community Foundation, Rotary and the Frederick Keys help pay activity costs “so children have opportunities like other children.” The Community Foundation, for example, provided musical instruments to five kids to be in school band.

The holistic approach also includes the weekly life skills classes like the one where Master Gardeners from the Maryland Extension Service gave advice on growing vegetables. Other weeks there may be an attorney talking about wills, a financial expert teaching household budgeting, or a yoga instructor encouraging them to be peaceful. On this night clients learn the best time to plant cucumbers. A leader tells them about the wealth of information in The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible. “It’s at the library; you don’t need to buy it.” In the corner children are pressing flowers into cards they will give their mothers. A woman takes notes, her baby asleep on her shoulder, awakening only when the topic turns to broccoli.

For more information about Advocates for Homeless Families, go to www.afhf88.org.