U-46 program aims to lift students, families out of homelessness
Getting the kids out of bed and ready for school -- a familiar morning struggle for most moms -- was exceptionally stressful for Blanca Pascual-Gomez.
For nearly a year, Pascual-Gomez was homeless, living with her three young children in a shelter.
She would wake the children -- 10, 8 and 6 years old -- around 5 a.m. to vacate the Downers Grove shelter where the family had taken refuge and prepare for a more than 20-mile trek to Elgin Area School District U-46 schools.
Marital problems and a divorce had led to the family losing their Hanover Park home. The children went from having their own bedroom, beds and toys to sleeping in one room with their mother. They went from home-cooked Mexican meals to eating unfamiliar foods with strangers while learning how to deal with a variety of personalities at the shelter.
It took an emotional and psychological toll and began affecting the children's schoolwork, says Pascual-Gomez, 30.
But with the help of a new program offered by Wheaton-based HOPE Fair Housing Center, the family is on a path to self-sufficiency and renting a three-bedroom home in South Elgin.
"I am not driving, waking up really early to get them to school," said Pascual-Gomez speaking through a Spanish language interpreter. "They are sleeping the hours that they need to sleep. It helps them be better at school. (Now) they love waking up for school."
Five U-46 homeless families are receiving rental assistance as part of the pilot program, the goal of which is to restore a sense of stability and help homeless families get back on their feet.
Just knowing where their next meal is coming from and where they will sleep at night "means so much for a child, for their learning and well-being," said Patty Briones, U-46 homeless liaison and bilingual coordinator for Project Access.
The program provides wraparound services, including transportation, tutoring and personal care items, for homeless students and their families.
"Now (Pascual-Gomez) is in a situation where she believes she can move on in life and be able to provide for her children," Briones said. "Her self-esteem has gone up. It's because of the stability she was able to offer (her kids) and take that fear away that there is no roof over their heads. Considering everything that they have gone through, they are doing really well in school."
HOPE funded the pilot program through a portion of a $1.4 million settlement from banking giant Wells Fargo stemming from a complaint about potentially discriminatory marketing practices and maintenance of foreclosed properties.
The nonprofit picked U-46 due to its large homeless population -- nearly 1,000 students at the state's second-largest school district. It spent $111,000 on rental assistance for the five families selected from a pool of applicants.
Program participants received two years of rental assistance -- the first year's rent was absorbed entirely by HOPE. Costs were split 50-50 the second year.
Meanwhile, U-46 saved on transportation costs for those homeless students, which the district subsidizes to keep students at their home schools as required by federal and state law.
One family became self-sufficient after the first year in the program. Three other families are in their second year and the fifth is in its first year.
Those families have increased incomes, improved health, socialization and school attendance, and enough money saved to cushion against future emergencies, HOPE Executive Director Anne Houghtaling said.
"It's a small investment for such a big payoff and reaffirms the importance of housing to so many of life's outcomes," Houghtaling said. "It was a great partnership. It's so cost effective and the outcomes are so good that we want to seek different funding sources to maintain the program. With appropriate philanthropic and corporate investment, we could end homelessness for families in U-46."
The agency is seeking grants from foundations and corporate sponsors to expand the program within U-46 and at other suburban school districts with large homeless populations.
As for Pascual, she is graduating in July after two years with the program and is confident she can support herself and her children.
She has been saving money from working at an ice cream shop and expects a steady income from child-support payments.
She now is looking into buying an affordable two-bedroom house in South Elgin or renewing her rental lease for another year.
"Yes, we can," she said emphatically.
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