Back in 2004, Carmen Melton had a lot of goals she wanted to reach - owning her own home, finishing her degree, getting a promotion at her job.
She attended an informational meeting on the Family Self-Sufficiency program, a three- to five-year goal setting program for residents operated by the Chicago Housing Authority. She met with a counselor, went to meetings and got on the path toward the things she wanted to achieve.
This week, she graduated from the program, all of her goals completed.
"The program allowed me to reach my goals. It got the ball rolling," says Melton, a former public housing resident and mother of four. "Now I feel like I can do anything."
Melton isn't the only one achieving her goals. Twenty-two people graduated this December, and on average, their incomes increased three-fold during the time they were in the program. Melton bought a home, was promoted at her job at the Chicago Park District and set up both a savings and retirement account.
Public housing officials hope the new work requirement will help this relatively small program grow. This January, the Chicago Housing Authority will institute new regulations that require residents of public housing to work at least 15 hours a week or show that they are working to get a job through education or training.
Andy Teitelman, vice president of resident services, says he's confident they'll see a rise in the number of residents taking advantage of the program once the work requirement is implemented.
"It's ideal for somebody that's not working now who is ready to make the commitment," says Teitelman. "If you have to work to keep your lease, why not get a little benefit out of it?"
Counselors in the program also think the work requirement will encourage more residents to sign up. Theresa Gibbons, program manager for Family Self Sufficiency, says she hopes it will help people aim for more than dead-end, minimum wage jobs.
"I think a lot of people see the work requirement as a punishment," says Gibbons, "but by enrolling in the Family Self-Sufficiency program, they start to see the good results of finding a job and finding more ways to move upwards."
The program also requires residents to take a financial literacy class. Learning about the financial system is important for residents, many of whom don't have experience with banks and credit, says Gibbons, who counsels about 60 residents.
"People have a lot of negative experience with banks with unexplained fees and problems," says Gibbons. "We try to provide the tools to help people make informed decisions."
Gibbons says one of the most helpful aspects of the program is how it helps people to save money. Usually, public housing residents’ rent is set as a portion of their income. When they enroll in the program, their incomes often go up as a result of education and promotions. Instead of paying more to CHA, that increase is paid into an escrow account that they can access when they graduate, earning interest and helping them learn the value of saving.
For a program that's so successful in helping residents, Teitelman says he's surprised more people don't take advantage of it. Although the program outcomes have been very successful, only 578 residents have graduated from the program since it began in 1996.
"I don't know why everybody doesn't sign up. I honestly don't," says Teitelman. "We've heard from residents that it’s a big commitment. A lot of people think it's too good to be true."
Right now, the program is only available to a limited number of residents through the Housing Choice Voucher program because of limited grant funding. Two years ago, CHA started a pilot program for residents in several mixed-income housing communities and other traditional public housing developments like Altgeld Gardens, Lowden Homes and Trumbull Park. Teitelman says they're working to increase outreach and education about the program in the communities it already serves.
"We're working really hard right now to find a way to make this program available to everybody," says Teitelman. "I don't think it'll be long."
Carmen Melton says she hopes other people take advantage of the resources that are available though the program.
"They will motivate you. They will help you," she says. "There's no reason for someone not to succeed."