The quest for a place to live: It's as big as the crisis in affordable housing, and as small as the first step toward a home of one's own. At a shelter in Tucson, Ariz., women and children alight, settle briefly, and then move on, in a restless search for refuge. Starting in July 2002, reporter Reed Karaim has traced their paths and told their stories in an NPR Online serial, Tales of New Beginnings. Part Five appears below; new installments will be posted occasionally.
Part Five: In the quest to succeed, 'no margin for error'
Beatriz tells a story about the girls returning from an outing and shouting delightedly: "My house, my house!"
"I have to teach them to say our house," Beatriz says, laughing.
The happiness is understandable. Once homeless, spending more than four months in a shelter while she got back on her feet, Beatriz worked hard to get her small family here. The apartment is the first home they have ever been able to call their own.
But the New Beginnings apartments are only a stage in a longer journey, not a final destination. Beatriz has two years here to take the steps that will allow her to move on to a home she can her own for as long as she wants.
On the first Thursday after Beatriz moved into the complex, Connie Walters held the weekly tenants' meeting in the cheerful community room. As case manager for the apartments, Walters' job includes these sessions, intended both to keep the small community of mostly women and children running smoothly and to help residents on their two-year journey toward self-sufficiency.
Attendance is voluntary and varies widely. Thursday, it was small. Several women stuck their heads in, but only three sat down for the entire meeting. Nonetheless, Walters energetically ran through her program, starting with handouts on an upcoming job fair. "If you're looking and you have a resume," she said, "you could even get a job right there."
She moved on to "Kids Day America," a local fair for children that will include free child I.D. photo cards along with dental and other health checkups. She provided information about special home ownership savings accounts, in which every dollar saved for a down payment is matched by three more from the Southern Arizona Community Land Trust.
Finally, she ended with discussion about avoiding "negativism" and getting along with apartment complex neighbors. "The climate in which we live is transitional housing -- a wide variety of people," Connie said, "and you never know what people are going through. If you speak to someone and they don't answer, it doesn't mean they're just being rude. You don't know what's going on with them."
Lasting less than a hour, the meeting served as a tidy summary of the agenda at the New Beginnings apartments. The program aims to help residents increase their earnings potential, be responsible parents, work toward a permanent home, and learn to be active members of their community.
Conscientious about such things, Beatriz had looked forward to the meeting. But when it was taking place, she was on the bus after picking up her girls at daycare, making the hour-and-a-half commute that starts and ends the family's 12-hour days. "I haven't actually had a chance to socialize," she says on Sunday. "I haven't met anybody."
She did make it to her first one-on-one meeting with Walters; residents are expected to attend one a month. In their first session, Beatriz says, Walters talked to her about what it takes to succeed at the apartments. "She said the women who do best are those who don't lose track of their goals," Beatriz says, "and who don't get too caught up in the lives of other people here."
But right now, she's hoping for a raise of 25 cents an hour at Wienerschnitzel, which will bring her pay to $5.45 an hour. "I really can't quit now," she says, "My boss is short of people."
But she will have to quit, and in the not-to-distant future, if she is to achieve her goals. "We try to focus on taking action that will tangibly change your economic status," says Debra Owen, New Beginnings executive director. "For some, that will mean going to college, and you won't see the results for right away. For others, it's moving from a minimum wage job up to something where they might be making $10 to $12 an hour."
The apartment complex offers much -- counseling, activities for the kids --but it also comes with greater responsibility. While New Beginnings works with Beatriz to seek out other career opportunities, she will have to make sure she's paying the bills.
Within her monthly budget, there is almost no margin for error, for any lengthy illness, any financial crisis of any kind. Within her work week, there is almost no time for classes, for meetings with her case manager, for the kind of self-improvement that will help her continue her climb toward self-sufficiency.
And yet Beatriz's situation is hardly among the most difficult that the New Beginnings apartment complex sees. Women arrive who have been traumatized by abuse to the point where they need referral to outside counseling. Children arrive who have been sexually abused and are struggling with anger or grief.
Owen says that since the federal government reformed welfare, reducing some benefits and setting time limits, New Beginnings has seen a change in clientele. Many of the women who show up have exhausted their options and have faced rougher times than those in the past. "I think they're just more defeated when they walk in the door," Owen says. "They have been through more systems, been to more programs, and they have not succeeded."
Homelessness is often seen simply in economic terms, a result of someone lacking enough money to pay for shelter. But the circumstances that leave someone out on the street are often a complex web of bad luck, failed relationships, poor choices and limited opportunity. To untangle this web, 90 days (or less) in a shelter and two years in a transitional apartment complex are not such a long time. "For some of the women," Owen says, "the challenge has most to do with loneliness or fear or lack of confidence that they can do this."
Two weeks into her new life, Beatriz seems to managing her freedom fairly well. She admits she has spent $50 on things she didn't absolutely need. But it's hard to consider a few house plants -- purchased on sale, two for $3 -- or Halloween stickers for the windows wasteful luxuries. "The kids picked out the plants. They put up the Halloween stickers," she says. "Basically, it was all for them."
The new apartment represents such an improvement for Beatriz and the girls that it's easy to understand why it seems an end in itself. But New Beginnings remains transitional housing. In effect, the clock is still ticking.
Still, the significance of the first place they can call their own is not lost on Beatriz. "I'm glad I got homeless," she says. "or else I wouldn't be here. I'm glad it all went the way it did."
New Beginnings for Women & Children
Coming next: Those who have moved on.