"If you give a man a fish he'll eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish he'll eat for a lifetime."
That age-old proverb aptly describes the intent behind the Brattleboro Housing Authority's Public Housing Family Self-Sufficiency Program.
Earlier this month we wrote about the need to have a good social safety net to help our less fortunate neighbors with basic necessities such as health care, food and affordable housing. But that's only part of the solution to combat the growing poverty rate in Vermont.
Ultimately we need to find ways to lift these families out of poverty altogether and help them be more self-sufficient -- a hand up, not a hand out, if you will. In the long run this approach will be better for these families by giving them the long-term stability and skills they need, and break the cycle of poverty that sometimes runs from one generation to the next. And it will be better for taxpayers and government coffers that are already stretched to the limit.
For the last three years the housing authority's self-sufficiency program has helped BHA hire coordinators who work with residents to find supportive services that can help them find a job, and ultimately alternative housing. The coordinators work directly with housing authority tenants to help them connect with local organizations that assist with job training, placement opportunities, as well as to secure transportation and employment interviewing skills and strategies.
BHA Executive Director Christine Hart said almost 100 residents have taken advantage of the program, and are working with a program coordinator to find and keep jobs.
"We've had huge success with this program," she said. "It is one of the best investments we can make to help people become more self sufficient."
What's more, the program also helps these tenants get out of public housing and into their own homes.
Federal public housing rules tie a tenant's income to his or her rent subsidy, and so when public housing residents begin to make money and work steadily, their rent goes up. As part of the Public Housing Family Self-sufficiency Program, money that is earned while a tenant is enrolled in the program is placed in an escrow account. That money does not have an impact on the tenant's rent, so BHA tenants can save enough money for a down payment on their own home.
Hart said organizations throughout Brattleboro support the program and work with tenants to help them. Local banks help tenants develop financial skills, job placement counselors work with program coordinators, and local employers are willing to take a chance on BHA tenants who are making their way back into the workforce.
"We have enormous support in the community for this program," said Hart. "There is a very wide range of services that are offered. It is a very, very high leverage program, and it helps more people work toward self-sufficiency. This means that more people will be able to find housing and get more control over their own destinies."
Given how successful this program has proven to be, it was heartening to learn that it will be getting the financial support it needs to continue for at least one more year.
The BHA will receive $69,000 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of a $16.3 million grant that will help hire more 300 program coordinators across the country
"I think they recognize the importance and success of this program nationally because it helps people be independent and self sufficient. It works," said Hart.
Unfortunately, the $69,000 that BHA received will only keep the program going for one more year. Given all of the budget problems going on in Washington, D.C., right now, future funding is uncertain. It's our hope that both sides of the political aisle will see the value these types of programs provide and continue the financial support. After all, self-sufficiency programs like this offer something both sides can support: They help the less fortunate, a cause which Democrats are known to champion, and in the long-term these programs get more people off the government dole, an end result that Republicans can get behind.