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. The final installment appears below.
Part Six: Coming out the other side of homelessness
But as Lorena steps up to the podium at the New Beginnings annual awards luncheon on a fall afternoon, it's less where she's headed than the distance she's already come that sparks the applause filling the ballroom.
A little over three years earlier, Lorena and her two young boys -- Isaac, now 5, and Gabriel, 7 -- were homeless after fleeing what she describes as “a domestic violence situation." After a short time in a shelter, they moved into the New Beginnings apartment complex, which provides affordable, transitional housing for women and children.
Today, Lorena is the very proud owner of a three-bedroom, two-bath ranch home in a nice part of Tucson. For her accomplishments, she is also the winner of an award for outstanding achievement by a former client at the New Beginnings luncheon.
“New Beginnings gave us hope," she says before the ceremony. “Everyone has a low point, and to overcome that, at least at times, they need someone else to say, 'This is what you can do.' They gave me the confidence to say, 'I can overcome these things."
Lorena had never worked before leaving her former husband. After getting into the New Beginnings program, she started work as a temporary employee at the Health Department. Within three months she'd been promoted twice. Taking advantage of the services offered by New Beginnings, she worked out a financial plan, a set of goals, and in two years she was ready to move on.
Her story is the one that rarely gets told: the story of someone who has come out the other side of homelessness and returned to the housing market, capable of taking care of herself and her children. Not all the women who pass through New Beginnings do so well, of course. But Debra Owen, New Beginnings executive director, says many more succeed than an outsider might expect. “The vast majority," she says, “get back on their feet."
Statistics kept by the non-profit organization indicate roughly 90 percent of the apartment residents go on to permanent housing after leaving, Owen says. Most often, this means renting an apartment or house on their own. But in the last two years, 15 former residents were able to buy homes. That's nearly one out of four families in the apartments -- a remarkable achievement considering the economic straits the women must be in to be eligible for New Beginnings in the first place.
Not all who move on look back with the unvarnished appreciation of Lorena. The week before the banquet, another tenant, Kimberly, left New Beginnings with little fanfare. While she appreciated the benefits of living in the apartment complex, Kimberly had begun to chafe at the rules. She had a new boyfriend and had tussled with staff over how much he was at her place.
Once a happy tenant, she was now anxious to leave, but faced a harsh reality. Making $9 an hour as a medical assistant, she was comfortable financially in the New Beginnings apartments, where rents are around $300. On the open market, a place as nice as the one she lived in was going to cost $700 or more.
When she learned she had qualified for a federal, low-income rent subsidy -- after more than a year on the waiting list -- she moved quickly. In just a few days, Kimberly was ready to move into a duplex she could afford with the help of her “Section 8" rent voucher. She is not back in the private housing market and is still receiving assistance. For many of the woman who pass through New Beginnings, the cost of a place on the open market is always going to be a stretch.
But Kimberly is moving into an affordable home where she and her daughter Ry'ality, 3, can stay as long as she pays the rent. Looking back at her time at New Beginnings, she sounds unsure of how she finally feels about the experience. “Financially, I got to pay off a lot of debt. Personally, I have good friends, good shoulders to lean on, people who have been where I've been. It helped me a lot," she says. “But I just hope I never have to go through it again."
If Kimberly should need help down the road, however, she will still be able to turn to New Beginnings. Former residents can still pick up free furniture or other donations, if necessary. More importantly, they can turn to the staff for help and advice.
In the continuum of care most experts believe is necessary to move the homeless to self-sufficiency, this is a final but important step. “Most of the women we have in our program don't have families they can turn to -- that's part of the reason they end up here in the first place," Owen says. “They don't have anyone to bounce an idea off of -- if they're thinking about a career move, or buying a house, or if they're having trouble at work. We work with them to develop a support system before they leave. But it's still important to know that they can always come home to us."
Contact with former residents is most intensive in the first six months after they leave. After that, it generally tapers off. Still, Owen says, former residents often call, especially when they have good news. “Half of what they're doing," she says, “is simply sharing their joy with somebody who was important to them."
When former residents are asked to explain the difference New Beginnings made, the first thing most of them cite is simply the affordable rent. “It gave me a chance to catch my breath and figure out what I wanted to do," says “Carmen," a petite brunette who also was honored at the banquet, but asked that her real name not be used.
The other benefit of New Beginnings that Lorena, Carmen and others cite is the security and sense of self-worth that came with a safe place that they and their children could count on. “What family doesn't need stability?" says Lorena. “What children don't need that?"
Finally, former residents mention the help provided in establishing a longer-term plan and strategizing about how to make it come true. (“I still use their budget system," says Lorena.) Homelessness is first of all an economic condition -- but it is also a matter of immediate need overwhelming the ability to plan for a better future. Perhaps the most important thing New Beginnings does for many of its tenants is give them the economic and psychological space to re-imagine their lives.
Of course, many former residents have more modest aspirations than Lorena or Carmen. “We have a number of women who will do things like train to work at a salon -- hair stylists or nail techs. They can make a lot of money if they get in the right salon," says Owen. “They're happy. They can afford to go out to eat. They're no longer dependent on the system. I consider these people successful."
Those who fail, she says, are often those with serious psychological, emotional or addiction problems that resurface. “Even those that you think aren't doing so well will sometimes surprise you," Owen says with indefatigable optimism.
The New Beginnings luncheon, attended by supporters, is a critical fund-raiser for the charity. Like so many organizations dedicated to housing the homeless, it faces a perpetual scramble for funds. But the luncheon is also a celebration, a moment to recognize women who have overcome great obstacles to make a home for themselves and their children.
Lorena and Carmen are not the only ones honored. As the women parade up to the podium, sometimes alone, sometimes with smiling children in tow, it is hard to connect any of them with the popular image of the homelessness. They are too cheerful, too engaging, too nicely dressed.
The audience applauds each in turn. At the end of the banquet, the formerly homeless blend into the chatting, swirling throng, indistinguishable from those who have helped them. Moving among well-wishers, they melt into the crowd.