Families Leave Homelessness Behind

Second Group of Formerly Homeless Parents Graduate from Financial Sustainability Initiative

Joanna at FSI graduation

Six families who had lived at a Sarasota homeless shelter are now well on their way to self-sufficiency after a year’s worth of financial-literacy training, financial coaching, and peer support.

The families are the second group to graduate from Gulf Coast Community Foundation and United Way Suncoast’s Financial Sustainability Initiative (FSI). Launched about a year and a half ago, FSI helps families avoid relapsing into homelessness by building the knowledge, habits, and assets they need to become financially sustainable.

“When you understand what families like this are up against in trying to make ends meet and keep a roof over their children’s heads, it’s almost mind-boggling,” said Holly Bullard, senior director of financial stability initiatives at United Way Suncoast. “These parents now see a future for themselves and their children, and it doesn’t include homelessness.”

FSI is a new approach to ending generational poverty that was developed by Gulf Coast and United Way after scanning best practices around the country. Unlike many traditional financial-literacy programs, FSI reinforces classroom-style lessons about budgeting and saving with intensive, one-on-one financial and behavioral coaching. Incentives to help participants stick with the program range from meals and on-site childcare during evening workshops to matched savings accounts that double the money families are able to sock away.

Through partners such as IberiaBank and the nonprofit Capital Good Fund, FSI also offers access to a range of asset- and credit-building financial products that effectively didn’t exist for these families in the past. Additional funders that help make this program possible include the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation and Sarasota County Government.

Locked Out of the Economy—Until Now 

The six families to complete the program last month spent about a year attending financial-literacy workshops, meeting regularly with a financial coach, and developing a budget and career plan to move their families toward financial sustainability.

The volunteer coaches were critical to their progress, serving as mentors, friends, and cheerleaders for the parents—many of whom say they never had a figure like this in their lives before. Financial resources including emergency funds for unexpected crises and low-interest alternatives to payday loans helped ensure that participants could follow through on their plans.

“These families never benefitted from the economic recovery in our region, because they were effectively locked out of the economy,” said Jon Thaxton, Gulf Coast’s senior vice president for community investment. “By offering second-chance checking accounts, alternatives to predatory lending, and access to emergency funds, we can help the parents succeed and ensure that their children get the opportunities they deserve.”

At a graduation ceremony last month at the Booker Middle School Resource Center, FSI participants and their coaches were recognized for their hard work and accomplishments. (Go here to view photos from the graduation.)

One new graduate, Farah, said she improved her credit, paid down outstanding debt, and learned how to stop living paycheck to paycheck. With guidance from her coach, Farah was able to secure a new job to gain more hours and earn more money, and she also returned to school to train as a dental hygienist, earning a scholarship and federal financial aid to pay for it. Farah and her son are both attending State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota, this fall, and she aims to have her own business one day.

George and Farah at FSI graduation

Another participant, Joanna, says she focused on getting out of debt, securing and maintaining a car for reliable transportation, and keeping her surgical-technician certification current. “I raised my credit score, I’ve done a budget for the next two years, and my car and my credit card will soon be paid off,” she said.

Expanding to Southern Sarasota County

More than 70 families have participated to some extent in the Financial Sustainability Initiative since it launched in May 2016. Two cohorts comprising 19 families have completed the full, yearlong program. Two more groups are now in progress, and a fifth will start at the end of November.

Families are referred to FSI by partner agencies in the Family Haven Alliance of Sarasota County, the network of human-service organizations coalesced through Gulf Coast’s Homeless Children and Families initiative to coordinate emergency shelter and case management for homeless families in crisis. All of the families in the second graduating cohort are clients of The Salvation Army – Sarasota Area Command, a vital partner in FSI from the outset.

The next step, according to Gulf Coast’s Thaxton, is expanding the initiative to southern Sarasota County. Key partner agencies there will include Family Promise of South Sarasota County and Children First’s facility in North Port. “We have Family Haven emergency shelters in northern and southern Sarasota County to stabilize homeless families in crisis, so it’s critical that we also provide this financial-sustainability support throughout the county,” noted Thaxton.

Community members can help by becoming volunteer financial coaches through United Way Suncoast or donating to FSI through Gulf Coast Community Foundation.


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