Future Looks Bright: Family Self-Sufficiency program boosts employment, education, homeownership
For Jennifer Johnson, life is a juggling act: working multiple jobs, going to school, raising four kids and handling whatever life throws at her.
It hasn’t been easy keeping all the balls in the air. But for the past five years, Jennifer has had a strong partner in the City of Tempe Housing Authority. Through the Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program, a federal program run at the city level, she has been planning for a more stable financial future and a home of her own.
“I’m a goal-oriented person and the FSS program always gave me something to strive for,” said Johnson, 39, a medical assistant.
“It was almost like the city held my hand. And when things came along that knocked me down, they had my back,” she said. “Then I could keep going.”
Johnson’s story is a familiar one to City of Tempe housing experts who administer the federal Housing Choice Voucher program (Section 8), which provides rent subsidies for eligible very low-income and low-income families.
Experts see families who struggle to be financially self-sufficient, the dream of a better future seemingly out of reach. Any number of obstacles stand in the way, from poor credit to the need for job training to a lack of education.
That’s where the Family Self-Sufficiency program comes in. Offered to families participating in the Housing Choice Voucher program, the voluntary program offers myriad supports that can help participants meet short and long-term goals over five years.
Families come to the program with a wide range of goals, said Val Sarver, a housing services specialist with the city. For one client, it may be completing a general equivalency diploma, or GED. For another, it might be polishing interview skills to land a better job. For yet another, it might be going back to school to obtain a degree.
Often, there are no easy answers. A client with a criminal history, for instance, may have a difficult time finding a job. To meet employment goals, the client works toward a GED, learns how to create a resume, locates employers who will hire someone with a felony record, pulls together professional outfits for interviews, sets up a checking account, and on and on.
Sarver is there every step of the way.
As families in the program become more self-sufficient and can pay a portion of their rent, funds are deposited into an escrow account. Successful graduates transition off public assistance and leave with a nest egg that will help boost their circumstances. Currently, 39 families are taking part in the FSS program.
“When we teach people to be self-sufficient, they’re finding a more financially stable career, furthering their education and possibly purchasing homes,” Sarver said.
For Johnson, the Housing Choice Voucher program was always supposed to be a temporary measure.
Largely on her own since age 14, Johnson has been on a path filled with challenging twists and turns through job loss, a car accident, the premature birth of a child, financial woes, and more. Many times, she found herself working multiple jobs to keep the family afloat while attending college classes to further her education.
Johnson pursued Housing Choice Voucher assistance at the suggestion of a neighbor. The decision turned out to be life changing, bringing much-needed stability to the family. Taking part in the FSS program only improved opportunities. Johnson worked to establish good credit and attended classes that delved into everything from financial literacy to housing options through nonprofit organizations.
In all, Johnson participated in the Housing Choice Voucher and FSS programs for 10 years.
“I wanted to be self-sufficient,” she said. “I just wanted to get to a point where I could buy my groceries without a food stamp card and pay my own rent.”
Now a successful graduate of the FSS program - with a nice nest egg in the bank - Johnson is still doing a juggling act, but sees a brighter future for herself and her family.
Johnson’s heart is in being a mom to her four children, ages 2 to 20, and she is thrilled to have a 1-year-old granddaughter.
She is currently an instructor at an allied health college, teaching aspiring medical assistants, and would ultimately like to become a nurse. She also daydreams about traveling, with Greece at the top of her bucket list.
And then there’s homeownership. When the lease is up on the family’s Tempe rental, Johnson and her fiancé will start house hunting.
Throughout her journey, Johnson has been driven by a simple mantra.
“You just do what you gotta do,” she said. “I learned at an early age that things just don’t fall in your lap. You have to work for what you want.”
For more information on housing assistance options in Tempe, visit the Housing Services Division at www.tempe.gov/housing or call 480-350-8950.