Connections led family to right paths and options, one step at a time
For most of her life Esther held jobs and went out of her way to help others. She was as surprised as anyone when, as she entered her fifties, she found herself unemployed and facing homelessness. Kind souls intervened, but the turning point came in St. Vincent de Paul’s Connections program, which helps struggling families turn themselves around, pay off old debt, and move forward with better chances of maintaining housing.
"We encourage people to do what they need to do to get on their feet and have an income," said Carol Dunsmoor, a Connections case manager.
A brisk morning finds Esther and her 18-year-old son Avante headed out of their Santa Clara apartment – Esther to Lane Community College and Avante to the UO, where he attends on a four-year scholarship. Armed with new skills and a whole lot of encouragement from their Connections team, they are making a new start.
The mother of four, Esther had already weathered her husband’s unexpected departure when, in 2008, she lost her job as a retail clerk. Then came a 30-day notice from her longtime landlord. Having a source of income had been a condition of her rent agreement.
“I think I had miniature nervous breakdown,” she said. “I wailed and bawled.”
Her despair fell on sympathetic ears. A kind contractor and his wife offered to let Esther and her family live in an apartment over the garage. The original one-month agreement extended to two years, until the couple moved out-of-state.
Esther suspects the same man of recommending her family for an emergency stay in ShelterCare housing. The ShelterCare case manager suggested that Esther look into St. Vinnie’s Connections, saying it was a fantastic program but hard to get into. With the case manager’s help and advocacy, there was hope. Still, Esther's family was packed to leave ShelterCare, had even given away the food they couldn’t carry, when they learned they’d been accepted into Connections.
They got a pleasant and affordable apartment, the immediate and persistent attention of a Connections case manager, regular support meetings, referrals to social-services resources, and continuous encouragement. Esther was advised to tackle her many challenges one step at a time.
The family got mentoring to address the depression and disharmony that had built up during months of uncertainty, and to get Avante in gear with his scholarship applications.
Esther benefitted from a life coach whose recommendations included enrolling in school. She accessed energy assistance, which helped maximize limited resources, and completed a course in household finance.
She learned that her medical conditions -- chronic fibromyalgia and Sjorgren’s Syndrome -- may have contributed to past job-related difficulties. One causes continuous pain, the other dries membranes in areas including the eyes and mouth. Esther couldn’t continue her part-time grocery job and again feared losing her housing.
At her case manager’s urging, she applied for disability benefits associated with her medical conditions. She was recently accepted so if she sticks to the budgeting strategies she learned through Connections, she and her family shouldn’t face homelessness again.
Esther graduated from Connections in September and is studying visual arts and computers. Eventually she hopes to work from home, perhaps maintaining websites. Meanwhile she’s elated that 18-year-old Avante is on track to become the first family member to graduate from college.
"I'm really proud of him," she said. "It's really been tough, being in and out of homelessness."
She credits the kindness of strangers and Connections for her family's survival, but to others in crisis, she would recommend being proactive from the start and finding someone to give that "push" at every turn.
“I would tell them to stop in and see St. Vincent de Paul,” she said. “They have the right paths and options.
“It’s easy when you’re dealt a hard blow to give up. I say, ‘Don’t give up, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.’ ”