By Manny Ramos, Chicago Sun-Times
Shoniqua Kemp and her 12-year-old daughter found themselves sleeping in their car after being kicked out of a shelter in Detroit. The pair had been homeless for nearly three years and had been bouncing from shelter to shelter. Kemp, 39, normally considered herself strong-willed, but was now vulnerable and uncertain of the future.
She then heard friends talking about an initiative that was helping them out of similar situations. The program, they said, helped participants with money and connected them with a community support group where conversations were centered around finances.
Skeptical at first, Kemp researched the initiative before being invited to participate in a meeting first hand. She said the meeting changed the course of her life.
Nearly two years later, Kemp now helps run meetings and helps others in situations like hers. During that time she has seen her monthly income increase, she has savings bonds and understands the importance of preparing for retirement. More importantly, she and her daughter are no longer homeless.
In 17 years, the Family Independence Initiative has enrolled 3,000 families — four people per household on average — and is operating in 14 different cities across the country. Now the initiative is making a move into 10 neighborhoods across Chicago. With a $2.6 million backing from Google.org and the City of Chicago, the organization hopes to combat poverty and improve the quality of life for 1,000 families on the South and West sides by giving money directly to them while also strengthening their social ties.
“Being homeless took something away from me,” Kemp said. Family Independence Initiative “and my family partners has replenished what was taken from me.”
“We recognize that everyday people are creating solutions to the very problems inside of their community and rather than investing in programs to address those issues, we invest directly into the people that are creating those solutions,” Jesús Gerena, the initiative’s chief executive officer, said.
The initiative enlists community groups to recruit five to eight families from their neighborhood. For two years, these participants commit to providing monthly financial reports and attend monthly community meetings. Participants can earn up to a $3,200 stipend as long as they remain committed to the program.
“People have a really hard time letting go of the perception that working-class families living in poverty can’t support themselves,” Gerena said. “There is no trust in their abilities that they can do better.”
But the initiative is about more than the small stipend. It’s about trusting communities to know what is best for the people who live there. The organization takes a backseat in managing the program and leaves the majority of the decision making to the community. Residents look to each other for support systems through filling out financial journals, community meetings and an online social network platform called UpTogether. Through the data shared on UpTogether, families are given reports and charts following their progress. The data-driven approach identifies trends and help families find necessary resources to help with their upward mobility.
“Me being able to look at the report gave me an extra push to help others do what I was trying to do, and to do what I thought at some point was impossible,” Kemp said. “It matters to have people backing you and pushing you, it matters to have people talk with you and that’s what this group is.”
More importantly, Gerena said, is that families share with each other tips on improving their financial and non-financial situations. They rely on one another for setting goals such as improving credit scores, buying a car or even tips on a healthier lifestyle.
“As we look at these families, the assumption is that the problem is they don’t know how to manage their money,” Gerena said. “Those negative stereotypes and ingrained narrative are punishing these families and keeps them from the resources that they need.”
According to the data collected by the initiative, during two years of engagement, families in the program have seen a 22 percent increase in their monthly income on average. They also reported on average a 55 percent decrease in use of government subsidies such as food stamps, and 88 percent have seen improvements in their child’s education.
About 28 percent of households live below the poverty line in the 10 neighborhoods the initiative will work in compared to 18 percent of households that live below the poverty line in all of Chicago, according to the most recent city-data available.
The Preservation of Affordable Housing — a nonprofit developer managing several low-income housing on the South Side — has partnered with the Family Independence Initiative’s expansion into Chicago. Felicia Dawson, Preservation of Affordable Housing’s vice president of community partnership, said she sees the initiative as an opportunity to empower families directly and help them move up the “economic ladder.”
“[People] will say what we want, what we need, how things should flow and what works best,” Dawson said. “I think [Family Independence Initiative] tries to get to that in a way that is purely driven by what the residents want.”
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