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Homeless Pushed Toward Self-Sufficiency

Elaina Howard, who is pursuing her master's degree, reads to her children. The family lives in an apartment provided by a nonprofit which requires residents to improve their lives. (M. Petrillo/VOA)
PHILADELPHIA — Construction workers are still hammering nails in doors and paving the sidewalks outside an apartment complex in West Philadelphia.

Although it is new, the 24-unit building is already at capacity. It's one of several owned by ACHIEVEability, a local nonprofit that offers affordable housing to single-parent families.

“Many families, when they come to our program, they’re in desperate situations," says Marcus Allen, ACHIEVEability's chief executive officer. "And they’ll say and do anything to get into the housing, because they know we offer really nice houses, 3- or 4-bedroom houses, row houses, scattered throughout West Philadelphia."

However, not just any family can live in ACHIEVEability’s housing. Residents have to show they are rebuilding and improving their lives. All ACHIEVEability residents are required to join its self-sufficiency program.

“We came to the idea that it wasn’t just about housing," Allen says. "We needed to also focus on the other things that helped families to be self-sufficient, which were supportive services, education, vocations skills, all the support that their kids needed.”

The program aims to teach personal accountability. It requires its members to pay a small fee for housing, work part time at an outside job, and enroll in at least five college-level classes each year.

Elaina Howard, 30, says the program requires a commitment. “You gotta balance family, work, education. It’s a challenge. It can be a challenge because everything is on you.”
ACHIEVEability's self-sufficiency program helped Howard Barrow, a former drug dealer, attain his masters degree in Human Services.(
ACHIEVEability's self-sufficiency program helped Howard Barrow, a former drug dealer, attain his masters degree in Human Services.(

Howard Barrow graduated from the self-sufficiency program four years ago. For the former drug dealer, going back to school was scarier in some ways than living on the streets.

“Bullets and crime and problems with life threats all my life were every day," Barrow says. "The idea of going to college was terrifying. Like that’s weird, like 'I don’t belong here, I’m out of place.'”

He eventually earned his masters degree in Human Services.

“My biggest struggle was believing that I could really do this. Like this whole thing about going to college and getting a degree. I didn’t believe that.”

Now Barrow earns money working for ACHIEVEability as a mentor to residents with drug and alcohol problems, work that he's found liberating.

“Freedom and self-sufficiency are synonymous," he says. "I can do life on my own, so I don’t need [government] welfare. I can be a productive member of society.”

The self-sufficiency program also teaches financial responsibility, parenting skills and personal accountability, which has motivated Elaina Howard, who is currently working to earn her masters degree in social work at Temple University.

“It’s more than just housing," she says. "It’s giving me the confidence, giving me the support, giving me the skills, giving me the opportunities to go out there and be able to support myself.”

ACHIEVEability's Allen says affordable housing and access to education play a key role in breaking the cycle of poverty. The proof of that, he says, can be found in the hundreds of ACHIEVEability graduates who are once again working and living on their own.