Up from homelessness: Families at Little Rock shelter put on right track; program seen as national model

Up from homelessness: Families at Little Rock shelter put on right track; program seen as national model

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By Jeanine Roberts
Photo by Staton Briedenthal
August 2, 2017

Bonnie Watts wasn’t sure what she would tell her young son.

She was raising him on her own. The overdue electric bill stared at her from a pile of other urgent demands, and rent was looming.

The paycheck from her part-time job as a home-care aide just wasn’t enough.

Food. Gas for her car. School supplies. Clothing. All of it was crashing down on her.

“I knew I had to do something,” Watts, 59, said.

She took what few belongings she could, put her son in the car and checked them into the Salvation Army shelter in Little Rock.

“I was homeless by choice,” Watts said, then smiled as she talked about her son, now 8 years old. “He’s very intelligent. Such a smart boy. I just told him we were having money problems. He understood. As long as I was there with him, he was OK.”

On Tuesday, three years later, Watts’ grin was wide as she talked about her new home in Little Rock with a fenced-in backyard and the General Educational Development diploma she is earning.

Watts is nearing the end of an intensive 12-month program at Our House homeless shelter in Little Rock called Central Arkansas Family Stability Institute.

The program, now a national model, works with the family as a whole and provides dedicated case managers as well as employment coaching, financial courses, children’s programs and outreach to schools and other community programs. The goal of the initiative — funded by the Siemer Institute for Family Stability, the Heart of Arkansas United Way and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation — is to intervene before a family becomes homeless.

Georgia Mjartan, executive director of Our House, told a group gathered Tuesday to celebrate the five-year anniversary of the program that the initiative is the result of board members questioning whether they should build more shelter beds or invest in resources and services.

“Our House has been around for 30 years and the first 25 years we touched the lives of tens of thousands of homeless people. But about five years ago we said, ‘The way to turn around homelessness in our community is to prevent it from ever happening,'” she said. “No family with their children ever want to have to enter a shelter. Nobody wants to have to put their children through that experience.”

In those five years, the Central Arkansas Family Stability Institute has served 1,399 people, including 926 children.

Of the 381 families served, 90 percent — or 343 — have maintained stable housing and exited the program with full-time income or its equivalent. Two families became homeowners. About 61 percent, or 232 families, increased their average household income by at least 25 percent.

“When I talk to other cities throughout the country, Our House, on a regular basis, is brought to the top of the list,” said Rod Podlogar, national director of the Siemer Institute, based in Columbus, Ohio. “Part of it is because of the two-generational approach where they really work with the families from an educational standpoint, for the children and the adults in the family. It’s also making sure the case management work is all-encompassing because every family can be a little bit different.”

Chris Ramsey, lead case manager for the Central Arkansas Family Stability Institute program, said the greatest effect of the program is reducing the trauma on children caused by constantly moving from one location to the next, one shelter to the next.

“This program has been in existence stabilizing families with hundreds of children — children who have to pack up, if we don’t intervene in time, one, maybe two toys. Maybe none,” Ramsey said. “They pack up their clothes and maybe they get picked up in the middle of the school day, having a good time on the playground.

“I like to think one of those kids was getting ready the next day to give that ‘Will you be my girlfriend? Mark yes or no’ note to that girl in class. But when he gets home, that won’t be home anymore. In 2012, Our House decided that boy was going to get that girlfriend.”

Ramsey spoke about the support from the community that makes the program and its outreach possible.

“That child’s heart. This mother’s heart. We’re keeping it intact when we keep a family stable, when we make sure there’s a livable wage, when we make sure they can save,” Ramsey said. “And 56 percent of our families saved some money for an emergency fund so when that alternator goes out, Mom don’t have to quit.

“We did that. We did that with your help.”

For Watts, it’s her son — who is now a student at Rockbridge Montessori School in Little Rock — who motivates her to stay with the program, to earn her diploma and get a good-paying job. To other mothers in a similar situation, Watts wants them to know there is hope.

“Don’t give up,” she said. “Keep your faith in God. He’s going to see you through it.”

A Section on 08/02/2017

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