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A Door to Independence

Little-known federal program helps Southland families move from welfare to work and homeownership.


Etta Finney was desperate. Laid off from her clerk's job at Northrop Grumman Corp. in El Segundo, the single mother of two frantically searched the Yellow Pages for a social service agency, a support group--anything--to help her keep a roof overhead and food on the table.

Manuel Cisneros was devastated. Looters destroyed his South-Central Los Angeles auto body shop during the 1992 riots. With no insurance to cover the loss and no income, he had little choice but to move his wife and four children into a public housing project in Long Beach.

Paul Jefferson was shaken. The 1994 Northridge earthquake left him without a job and unable to make the monthly rent on his Encino townhouse.

Together, their tales of woe personify Los Angeles' travails that peaked in the 1990s with the confluence of the recession, the riots and a magnitude 6.7 earthquake.

Determined to get back to where they once had been, all three signed up for a little-known federal program that seeks to move poor families from welfare to work and homeownership within five years. None had needed public assistance before they were knocked off stride by circumstance, and all had been gainfully employed for years.

Since it began in 1993, the Family Self-Sufficiency program, which received $29 million in federal funding this fiscal year, has provided counseling, job training, home-buying seminars and escrow savings accounts to tens of thousands of low-income families nationwide.

Some 50,000 heads of households are enrolled in the program that is administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and operated by 1,200 local housing authorities across the country.

The city of Los Angeles launched the FSS program in 1995, its start date delayed a year by the earthquake. So far, 67 heads of households have graduated from the program and 3,140 low-income families are enrolled.

Los Angeles County also runs an FSS program, contracting with three nonprofit agencies to oversee it. Since 1994, some 40 heads of households have graduated and 900 families are enrolled.

"We are seeing the first graduates of the five-year program," said Steve Renahan, director of the city housing authority's Section 8 program, a federally funded effort to help low-income families find affordable housing. "Issuing escrow checks is beginning to become routine." The checks, from participants' escrow savings, average about $6,400.

Finney, laid off from her aerospace job in 1985, said the $2,500 escrow check she received after completing the program last June will be used as a down payment not only on a hom but also on a better future.

Couldn't Get Ahead on Public Assistance

"You can't do anything on public assistance," said Finney, 44, of Paramount, referring to her years on welfare. "You are in their little clutches. You can't progress at all."

Shopping for groceries, clothes and holiday gifts depended upon when her welfare checks arrived, Finney said, adding that the amount was barely enough to cover basic necessities.

"And if you had a dream or goal that involved extra funds, like getting a car, it was impossible," she said. "There was no freedom."

Although temporary public assistance is a good thing for those in need, Finney said recipients should get off welfare rolls as soon as they can.

"If I had stayed on public assistance, I would be in a hole," said Finney. "I had dreams and goals, and I wanted to move up."

After signing up for FSS in 1997, Finney regularly met with a case worker at On Your Feet, a social service agency contracted to run the program for HUD from its Sherman Oaks and Long Beach offices.

On Your Feet counselors provided Finney with job leads, credit counseling and much more. "They brought gifts for my children at Christmas," she said, "and they used to give me pep talks to keep me motivated."

Erica Williams, On Your Feet's director of programs, said encouraging clients to continue moving toward their goals is the agency's central focus.

"The one-on-one relationship between the counselor and the client is key to the program's success," Williams said. "Everyone is treated like an individual, not a number."

After short-lived jobs as a CD-ROM tester for Mattel in El Segundo and as a receptionist at a water filtration plant in Carson, Finney landed her present job in October 1999 as a case manager in the welfare-to-work program at Goodwill Industries in Long Beach.

"I can totally relate to what they are going through," said Finney, who completed FSS two years ahead of schedule.

Things looked bad for Cisneros in April 1992. Rioters had destroyed his auto body shop near Normandie Avenue and Century Boulevard in South-Central Los Angeles.

With only the sporadic income he earned as a soccer coach, Cisneros, 43, moved his wife and four children from a four-bedroom rental house into the Carmelitos public housing project in Long Beach.

"I was depressed because I had lost my business and my house," said Cisneros, who had never before relied on public assistance.

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