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Learning Life Skills Helps Homeless

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I was sitting in a classroom with eight desks arranged in a half-circle as instructor Terry Toman from CNM’s Workforce Training Center went over a worksheet about the plural forms of nouns and then threw out some word-play brain teasers.

It was the first week of the semester, and the students, seven young women and one young man, were as attentive as you might expect new students to be, but they were a little tentative as well. They were homeless adults, all parents, and they hadn’t been in a classroom in a while.

The class was being offered by the nonprofit organization Saranam, which works to move families from homeless shelters into stable homes.

If you’re wondering, like I was, what knowing that the plural form of “leaf” is “leaves” has to do with homelessness, I’ll let the group’s executive director, Tracy Sharp, explain Saranam’s unique long view.

“Ending homelessness is more complicated than getting a home,” she said. “It’s about learning self-sufficiency and managing resources and modeling that for their kids.”

Getting an education and learning practical life skills are a big step toward building a foundation for long-term stability for a family, and they dominate families’ first year of the two-year program.

For the first semester, parents and their children are moved into fully furnished and decorated apartments, the kids get settled into neighborhood schools and the parents get started on their own education plan.

Adults spend four mornings a week in basic classes aimed at refreshing their academic skills and four afternoons a week learning life skills, like how to register to vote, manage stress, cook, budget and find out their credit score.

At the end of the first semester, the parents enroll in classes to earn their GEDs or, if they’re high school graduates, to begin college work. They stay in their apartments for the entire two years, which for many of the families is the longest time they’ve been settled down with their families in one place.

There are a lot of programs out there to get homeless people out of shelters and off the streets, but Saranam, now in its ninth year, is the only one I know of that employs such a comprehensive approach. That might be because it is extremely expensive – the endowment and donation-funded Saranam operates on a $350,000-a-year budget – and its expense means only a handful of families benefit from Saranam each year.

For the six or eight families who get the opportunity each year, it’s a blessing of stability and support – a time to work toward something other than finding a place to stay and keeping their heads above water.

“For two years to not have to worry about anything but my kids and go to school?” Christie Sanchez said when I asked her what the program meant to her. “It was better than winning the lottery.”

Sanchez entered the program as a divorced mother with two kids whose history as a victim of domestic violence had left her shattered.

“When I started the program,” she said, “my self-esteem was zero. I couldn’t look anybody in the eye.”

Sanchez, her daughter Heather, now 17, and son Abel, now 9, made their first trip to a domestic violence shelter in 2007 and spent years moving between shelters, apartments and a relative’s home. Heather had lived at 19 different addresses and gone to six different schools before second grade.

That kind of instability makes it hard for children to make it through high school, for parents to provide family structure and safety and for anyone in the family to focus on getting out of the cycle of homelessness.

“Providing stability solves a lot of the problems,” Sharp, the program’s executive director, told me, “and provides people an opportunity to work on the problems it doesn’t solve.”

Jennifer Mullen, the program’s case manager, told me that many homeless families struggle with regaining structure and predictability in their lives. “Mealtimes, bedtimes,” she said. “We work with them to get out of crisis and chaos mode and into stability.”

The only requirements for being considered for Saranam are being homeless with children. The requirements to stay in it are to remain sober and attend the classes. Three out of four families complete the program. Although Saranam doesn’t track families in the long term, many Saranam graduates have gone on to complete their college degrees or vocational certificate programs and moved on to other apartments outside the complex where all the Saranam families live. Others stay put at the end of their two years, taking over rent payments and retaining the stability of their Saranam address and community. After graduating from the program, Christie Sanchez and her kids stayed in the fully furnished three-bedroom, two-bath apartment that Saranam had provided her because it felt like home. She pays the rent and utilities now with disability payments from a degenerative back disease that requires her to walk with a cane. But she’s a few credits shy of completing an associate degree in business management at CNM and hopes to be able to move back into the workforce.

Abel is in fourth grade at McCollum Elementary and can walk home from school. And Heather is studying biology at CNM and is on the precocious path to earn her associate degree in applied science next year – at age 18.

When I asked Sanchez where she and her kids might be if she hadn’t been accepted into the Saranam program, she looked around her comfortable home and her happy kids. “I hate to even think about it,” she said. “We’d still probably be bouncing around, worrying, not knowing where we’re going to sleep.”

The Saranam program is funded by an endowment built from the $3.8 million bequest of Frances Thaxton Ash to Central United Methodist Church upon her death in 2001 along with private donations. Ash, who never had children and was never homeless, gave the money with a clear mission: to end homelessness among families in Albuquerque.

Saranam means “refuge” in a Pakastani language. It is the name of a hymn in the Methodist Church hymnal.

“We chose that because this is more than a stopping place, this is really a refuge and a place to really gather yourself and make some changes. It’s much more than just a shelter.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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