By Diana Whittle
For Tempe resident Jennifer Johnson, life often feels like a juggling act—working multiple jobs, going to school, raising four kids and handling whatever else life throws at her.
It isn’t easy keeping all the balls in the air. But over the past five years, the city of Tempe
Housing Authority has served as a supportive,
As a Housing Choice Voucher holder, Johnson receives help with her rent payment through HUD’s Section 8 program, which provides rent subsidies for the city’s eligible low-income and, in some cases, even more impoverished very-low-income families.
Johnson also is eligible to participate in another federally funded program known as Family Self-Sufficiency.
The FSS program assists Johnson, along with 38 other local participants, in working toward a more stable financial future and by saving for the purchase of a home of their own.
“I’m a goal-oriented person, and the FSS program always gave me something to strive for,” said Johnson, 39, who currently works as a medical assistant.
“It was almost like the city held my hand. And, when things came along that knocked me down, they had my back,” she said. “Then, I could keep going.”
Johnson’s story is a familiar one to the staff in Tempe who administer the housing programs. Val Sarver, a housing-service specialist, says that families come to the program with a wide-range of goals. “For one client,”she says, “it may be completing a general
equivalency diploma, or GED. For another, it might be polishing interview skills to land a better job.
“For yet another, it might be going back to school to obtain a degree,” said Sarver.
Typically, what the FSS families share is the struggle to be financially self-sufficient, as well as the dream of a better future, which can seem out of reach. That’s where the Family Self-Sufficiency program comes in to help. Services are offered only to families who are connected to Housing Choice Vouchers, a voluntary program with myriad support services that can help participants meet short- and long-term goals over five years.
“Any number of obstacles can stand in the way,” said Sarver, “from poor credit to the need for job training to a lack of education.”
Often, there are no easy answers to these challenges. A client with a criminal history, for
instance, may have a difficult time finding a job. To meet employment goals, the client works toward a GED, learns how to create a resume, locates employers who will hire someone with a felony record, maintains at least a modest closetful of professional outfits for interviews, sets up a checking account and so on.
Tempe’s Sarver, thankfully, tries to be there every step of the way.
As families in the program become more self-sufficient and can pay a portion of their rent, funds are deposited into an escrow account. Successful graduates transition off public assistance and leave with a nest egg that will help boost their circumstances.
In the past year, Tempe had three participants meet their goals successfully and graduate.
“When we teach people to be self-sufficient, they’re finding a more financially stable career, furthering their education and possibly purchasing homes,” Sarver said.
“The FSS program encourages a range of outcomes for participants. Home-ownership is one of them, and this year I am working with two individuals who are going through the process of becoming homeowners.
The funds that participants build up in their escrow accounts allow them to take these next steps.”
For Johnson, the Housing Choice Voucher program was always supposed to be a temporary measure.
Largely on her own since age 14, Johnson was on a path filled with challenging twists and turns through job loss, a car accident, the premature birth of a child, financial woes and other economic and personal woes.
Many times, she found herself working multiple jobs to keep the family afloat while attending college classes to further her education.
Johnson pursued Housing Choice Voucher assistance at the suggestion of a neighbor. The decision turned out to be life changing, bringing much-needed stability to the family.
Taking part in the FSS program only improved opportunities. Johnson worked to establish good credit and attended classes that delved into everything from financial literacy to housing options through nonprofit organizations.
In all, Johnson participated in the Housing Choice Voucher and FSS programs for 10 years.
“I wanted to be self-sufficient,” she said. “I just wanted to get to a point where I could buy my groceries without a food stamp card and pay my own rent.”
Now a successful graduate of the FSS program—with a nice nest egg in the bank—Johnson is still doing a juggling act, but sees a brighter future for herself and her family.
Johnson’s heart is in being a mom to her four children, ages 2 to 20, and she admits being thrilled to have a year-old granddaughter.
She is currently an instructor at an allied health college, teaching aspiring medical assistants, and would ultimately like to become a nurse. She also daydreams about traveling, with Greece at the top of her bucket list.
And then there’s home-ownership. When the lease is up on the family’s Tempe rental, Johnson and her fiancé will start house hunting, she says.
The road to Johnson’s newfound optimism has been dotted with turns and detours, but throughout the journey she has been driven by a simple mantra.
“You just do what you gotta do,” she said. “I learned at an early age that things just don’t fall in your lap. You have to work for what you want.”
For more information on housing assistance options in Tempe, visit the Housing Services Division at www.tempe.gov/housing or call 480-350-8950.