“I’ve been both a mother and a father to my children,” Beverly Fields said to a crowd gathered in the Smithfield Court gymnasium during the Birmingham Housing Authority’s Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) graduation ceremony.
“It’s been a hard road,” Fields said. “But when I overheard my son talking about how he saw me working hard for them, it made it all worth it.”
The goal of FSS is to enable participants to move out of public housing and off welfare, said Jerethia Blake, the Housing Authority’s FSS coordinator. Typically, participants agree to a five-year course plan, but sometimes people can complete their goals sooner.
Fields and other FSS participants completed the program aimed at identifying educational, personal and professional goals. Fields credited the program with helping her gain an economic foothold and pay off her mortgage.
Sara Bracy, who also graduated on Thursday, said that when she entered into the program she was getting away from a troubling situation. Her apartment had no heat and she had to move in temporarily with a neighbor. That situation did not work out and she had to leave in a hurry. She then found herself living in a public housing project, Elyton Village.
“I feel like I’ve been in the program forever,” Bracy said. “I want to say it’s been since 2010. I completed all the goals I set for myself. I paid my car off in 2012 and I have just finished paying my house off. My next goal is to get back into the program,” Bracy said, chuckling.
FSS began in the early 1990s, Blake explained, as an initiative of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. Birmingham began using it about 20 years ago, Blake said.
Each resident brings a different set of goals to the program, Blake explained. “Some residents may focus on education as a barrier. So they would have to go back to school and get their GED in order to complete that goal. Others may want to get more formal training in the area they work in. Each experience is different.”
The FSS program can take from one to five years to complete. Blake said that those who are willing to dedicate themselves to the plan usually excel.
Bracy is one of those people. She attributes her success to the “overwhelming support system” within the FSS program. “I think more people should know about this. They are there to help you whenever you need it,” Bracy said. During her speech at Thursday’s graduation, Bracy said the program helped her “pick herself up” and realize the potential she possessed.
“They helped me prepare for job interviews. They told me how I should dress and even had classes where it would be a fake interview and we would work through what to say and what not to say,” Bracy explained. While she has paid off her home, Bracy said she is still living in public housing for the time being due to renovations.
In order to sign up for the free FSS program (any head of household who lives in public housing or section 8 is eligible), residents must contact their property manager. There are no deadlines to sign up each year, Blake explained.
Currently there are 135 people involved in the program in Birmingham. Blake is hopeful that those people will gain the skills necessary to move their families out of public housing upon graduation.
Blake recalled a woman who signed up for the program in 2011. “She wanted to show her family what it meant to work hard. She didn’t want her two young girls to live the lifestyle that can sometimes be associated with living in income-based housing. She hit the ground running and owned a home by 2014,” Blake said.
Such success stories are not uncommon with FSS, Blake added. As the ceremony came to an end on Thursday, Bracy addressed the crowd. “When you fall, get back up,” Bracy said. “You can succeed. You can show your family what happens when you work hard. My new goal is to give back to this program that has helped us succeed for our families.”