VIDEO: Program helps participants find self-sufficiency

Published on Friday, 12 July 2013 22:06 - Written by By Dayna Worchel

All Kenneth Alexander needs is $1,000 to put down on a home, and he hopes to have it soon.

“I’ll get it if I have to sell soda water,” Alexander, 63, said on Thursday, with determination and tears in his eyes. The recent master’s degree recipient is job hunting now and said he is determined to land a job. He hopes to find a job in sales or marketing, but he will take whatever is offered, he said. 

Alexander, who now lives in an apartment, is a part of the voluntary Family Self Sufficiency program administered by the city of Tyler and funded through an annual federal Housing and Urban Development Grant.

It is a five-year program designed to support low-income families who receive federal rental assistance through HUD and who want to become financially self-sufficient. Each participant must first meet with the city’s Neighborhood Services staff members to set specific goals that the participant wants to achieve within a five-year period, said Karesa Cooper, Family Self-Sufficiency homeownership coordinator for the city.

Forty-four people are enrolled in the program, and the first class is scheduled to graduate in 2015. The FSS program began in 2010.

After an initial meeting, each enrollee in the program meets with Neighborhood Services staff weekly to update the staff on his or her goals, which could include getting a driver’s license, getting a job and obtaining a G.E.D. or a college degree, Ms. Cooper said. Many of the participants have the goal of homeownership.

“The biggest part of the program is setting goals,” she said.

After five years, the enrollees complete the program and must be working full time and free of all welfare assistance to graduate.

Each participant gets a HUD-funded escrow account, which starts with a zero balance. If the participant gets a job and his or her rent in a HUD-funded apartment increases as a result, the difference between the original rent paid and the newly raised rent goes into an escrow account for the participant, Ms. Cooper said. The idea is the same if the participant enters the program with a job and gets a raise.

“The goal then becomes to get a higher-paying job or to get a degree that leads to a higher paying job — the whole idea of the FSS program is to make families self-sufficient,” Ms. Cooper said. The money in the escrow account can be used for a home down payment or for school-related expenses, she said.

Alexander, who has lived in Tyler since 1961, enrolled in the program in 2012. He has never owned a home.

“They have given me the tools to become a homeowner,” he said, adding that he had taken seminars and met with credit counselors to reach his goal. There would be no way that he could have ever become a homeowner without the help of the program, he said.

Alexander, who graduated from Tyler’s Emmett Scott High School in 1968, said he’s always worked, starting when he was 10 years old. He was paid $2.50 a week to run errands on a bicycle. He also worked at a grocery store, and for the city of Tyler from 1969 until 1980 in various capacities, including as a water meter reader and a street paver.

Alexander, who began his education at Tyler Junior College, attended Texas College and received his master’s degree in business administration from Stephen F. Austin State University in 2012.

He has high praise for the staff at Neighborhood Services, who are helping him to achieve his dream.

“They go above and beyond,” he said of Ms. Cooper, Candace Porter and Andy Davis, who have all helped him in his quest to become a homeowner.

Although Ms. Cooper’s salary is funded by a federal grant, she and the Neighborhood Services staff like to provide snacks and food for their clients in the evening when they come for seminars and evening meetings with credit counselors.

“We are always looking for donations and volunteers,” Ms. Cooper said, adding that she sometimes makes purchases from her own pocket to provide snacks for the program participants. But she said she is happy to do what she does and to help make a difference in people’s lives.

“It’s been a life-changing experience to be a part of changing other people’s lives,” Ms. Cooper said.