Who doesn’t like “free?”

“This workshop is free,” I found myself telling our residents, “which is huge – when you consider how much it costs for people to hold themselves back.”

Often my peers in the Family Self-Sufficiency field remark that, with the right attitude on our part and the proper presentation skills, it should be easy to prompt residents to take actions that result in personal change. Take the workshop I am urging everyone to attend, for example: we can all benefit from financial literacy, right? More so if the attendees hope to move from public housing into homeownership.

keymoneyBut even the word FREE does not always inspire people to take action. Dr. Wayne Dryer advises, “when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” So, on the theory that I can only change myself and my actions, I decided to try a different approach.

So what really motivates people to take those all-important steps that make big differences in their lives? Perhaps if we want to change behavior, we need to change our message. Which is why I qualified the description of these classes – beyond saying “free-no cost to you.” And that’s where things got interesting.

Our residents amended their response every time I mentioned the costs of inaction. Until that point, many were invested in explaining why the workshop was not personally feasible at the moment. My newer message seems to encourage self reflection, because several people acknowledged aloud that they could benefit from the workshop being offered.

Ah- but will they attend? That remains to be seen, of course. We are on a new learning curve, my FSS Participants and I. I am trying to change both the way I look at things, and my message. Time will tell what the effects will be.

Just in time for the holidays, Sheeya moved from Public Housing to a home of her own.

SheeyaSheeya  came to live in Public Housing 10 years ago with a plan in mind:  She needed to clear up credit issues and save towards a home of her own.   Along the way she joined Family Self Sufficiency and learned about how to earn enough to support a mortgage.

We met Sheia in her home on a modest street in the city.  She has enough room for the kids, a big backyard, off-street parking.  And she can feel proud. “I wanted to leave something to my children,” she explains.   Soon 2014 will be upon us and everyone is thinking ahead. Whatever your goals, Sheeya  says she is  proof that “we can always try new things, we can always start again.” We can always start over.

Sheeya decided the way to double her income was to go back to school, and although she is expecting her third child, she did just that.  Both baby and graduation will arrive in May of 2014. She made a good choice to go back to school, in spite of the difficulties.  According to Karen Schweitzer  @ BusinessMajors, in an interview with Peter Smith, Ed.D. when times get tough, adults go back to school.  That’s because most of the new jobs being created require a college degree.

Sheeya also has some advice about the length of time it took her to reach her goal: “I made mistakes with my credit and education when I was younger.  But it is never too late to begin. You have to be willing to put in the time.”Sheeya-Fireplace

FSS Participants are always looking at how they use their time.  Like Sheeya, they know reaching success means they’ll have to make some major changes in how they spend their time. When you’re intentional about how you spend your time and resources, you can achieve anything you want, according to @happyblackwoman.


Sheeya is proof of this fact.  She and her family are our 44th homeowners.  We also have an additional 18 graduates who attained the status of growing their income to the point where they no longer qualify for housing assistance.


Why did they tell me I can’t?

Lately, at the very hour that many of my friends and colleagues are preparing to retire,  I’ve decided to take on a particularly arduous landscaping task in the backyard.  It’s the kind of job most younger women might not decide to tackle, the kind that people with earth-moving equipment and strong backs have already refused.  Needless to say, a lot of people tried to dissuade me.

And almost every objection to my plan started with the words, “You can’t do that.”

Some of those objections, of course, had merit.  One person warned me that I’d waste good expensive loam if my idea fails and the river rises again to wash it all downstream. Point well enough taken.  So I went out and found a friendly contractor looking for a spot to dump clean fill, free of charge.  Now if my yard can’t withstand a flood, all I have lost is some free dirt.  And gained lots of muscles in the process.

But most of the objections fell into a very different category.  I could have easily responded to may well-meaning friends and family by reminding them that this plan of mine did not require their participation.  As the poet Adrienne Rich  said “Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you…”

But what makes us employ this game-stopping tactic anyway?  I know why we tell ourselves we can’t do a thing: Excuses are an avoidance tactic.  Often, when we tell ourselves that we can’t, we might be trying to avoid.

  • Work,
  • Effort,
  • A challenge of some sort,
  • The chance our action might refute some long-cherished belief,
  • The knowledge that we might not be correct,
  • Fear of change…

But why do we tell others that they should abandon a plan, or that the work involved is not worth the effort?

If you work in public service, you might hear a lot of statements that begin with the phrase, “You can’t.”  As much as I hate the thought, I sometimes find myself objecting to someone’s ideas or request or plan by starting out with the words, “you can’t.”  Unfortunately, every time any of us does that, we’re showing our lack of problem solving skills.

Think about it.  How often have we told ourselves not to even entertain an idea because of some seemingly sensible objection that we apply towards another?  We say,

  • She can’t sign up for Family Self-Sufficiency because she’s (too old, too ill to work, already makes too much money, too-you-name-it.)
  • They’ll never join FSS if they think the goal is to get off public assistance.  Besides, HUD rules state that we cannot direct how they spend their Escrow.
  • She can’t buy a home because doesn’t make enough (-even if the bank has offered her a loan.)
  • He will never amount to much because he’s (a functioning alcoholic, a single parent, a terrible neighbor, you-name-the-reason.)

SuccessFailureSometimes I wonder if, instead of putting other people in our shoes, we’d have happier outcomes if we instead put ourselves in theirs.  Yes, that messy tenant with the noisy family would make poor neighbors on your street.  But every town has a community of run-down homes with poorly maintained yards.  And often those homes are owned, not rented.

In my own case, many of the people who told me not to buy a wheelbarrow and shovel were assuming I was too old and frail for heavy work. But most of these folks are my age, and spend a monthly fee at the gym for their strength-training.  My exercise, at least, is free.

When we allow ourselves to believe the excuses, I fear we might be doing everyone around us a disservice.  Because with every objection I heard towards my own plan, I also heard something deeply personal about the speaker.  If we continue to stop making excuses and refuse to take charge, we end up with, well, a life unchanged.

Or a yard under water.

What’s the one thing you would like your residents to know?

End of the rope.

End of the rope.

­There’s been a lot of talk lately about term limits for Public Housing. The idea is to help families use low income housing as a hand-up instead of a hand-out.  Which would mean families would need to use their time residing in Public Housing to work towards the sort of goals that would allow them to fully support themselves. As FSS staff, many of us know something about this.

While some programs struggle with a way to define “suitable employment,” others rely on an economic standard that is measurable.  In fact, HUD already uses such a standard.  Very low income, low income, and moderate income guidelines are published yearly and HUD pro-rates these guidelines depending upon the family’s geographic area and family size.

“Suitable Employment,” then, is employment that supports the family without government assistance.  If we help a family reach this goal, we have really helped them to move into a specific income bracket.

This goal is doable, of course.  And it is measurable and attainable.

But seeking and maintaining employment of any nature can be tricky for some families.  Things get de-railed on too many levels and in too many areas.  Which is when we decided to look outside the FSS box to see how other industries help their constituents attain a purposeful and meaningful occupational role in society that allows the individual to fully support themselves and their dependents.

So what one teachable thing could help a resident, who for the first time, might be learning;

  • Employment skills,
  • Job retention skills,
  • English for Speakers of other languages,
  • Literacy skills,
  • Technology skills,
  • Freedom for Addiction skills,
  • Parenting skills,
  • Decision-making skills for life situations,
  • Relationship skills for strong and healthy inter-personal relationships,
  • And all the rest.

A lot of folks claim that developing and strengthening an individual’s Emotional Intelligence is the key to success in any endeavor.  Steve Hein maintains that Emotional Intelligence is what we need most in the world today. You can find loads of tests on the internet to help you figure out your EI.

Why the fuss about emotions and feelings?  “While we often associate emotions with personal matters such as relationships and family, the fact is they play a critical role in the business world-and can actually make or break careers,” according to Andrea Zintz, Ph.D., president of Strategic Leadership Resources.

Daniel Coleman has made an entire career on the subject and believes EI is a stronger indicator of life success that a person’s IQ.  And there are more.  The field is almost too prolific to ignore.  So maybe building in a little EI in our Family Self-Sufficiency work could help.  It certainly couldn’t hurt!

FSS is only limited by our own thoughts.

If you ask me, it all started with Temple’s parents. They were told their daughter didn’t fit the accepted range of normal, and they were advised to institutionalize the little girl.  But the parents of this special woman did not listen.  To me, it looks like that act alone opened a few doors for little Temple.

It is also remarkable to me that at least one or two teachers did not listen either.  Working in a bureaucracy sometimes means that the “tall poppy” runs risk of being told to step back.  So when I heard that some of Dr. Grandin’s teachers held higher expectations for her, treated her as if she could succeed beyond normal expectations, or changed their teaching methods to meet her needs, I was immediately intrigued.

According to more than one thought-leader, it can be a pretty potent motivator to stay small and safe.   FSS programs have some additional concerns: the rules that govern us are deliberately vague, allowing for interpretation that meets local resources and individual family needs.  Sometimes we fill in the gray areas with our own invented rules, hoping to bring order and structure where it might not really be needed. 

At the Brockton Housing Authority, we’ve learned to listen carefully to the messages we give ourselves and our residents. Whenever any of us make statements that speak to lesser abilities of our residents, or our own lower expectations for them, or any view that appears to limit the range and heights to which our residents can travel, this might be an indication the staff needs a little TLC.  The real issue might be fear of success. 

The causes of disorder are several, according to Mindtools.com But if we can help ourselves identify just what it is we fear, we may in turn be able to teach residents how to turn off that negative voice we all sometimes hear in our heads – the one that says not to reach, not to over-extend, not to elevate our skills or dreams.  And when we lose that negative voice in our heads, we become part of a real team – the kind that helps a young autistic woman discover how to change the world.

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We’re all in this together!

weblogo blogFamily Self-Sufficiency (FSS) is the vehicle by which residents of the Brockton Public Housing Authority become free of government assistance in this and future generations.  That’s kind of a mouthful, but what we’re really saying is that everything we do should bring our residents back to this mission. 

Because economic self-sufficiency is a skill that can be taught, and as the largest landlord in our town for low-income individuals and families, we should be using creative and cost-effective measures to help residents of all ages learn these skills.  

We can’t know we’re effective, though, unless we have established clear methods to mobilize residents, effective means of measuring progress, and identified indicators to evaluate trends so we can respond accordingly.  And there’s the mouthful!

Because too often the questions we get from other PHA’s relate to how to implement the FSS program.  So, for now, we’ll discuss those issues. 

Eventually, though, I’d like to get back to the bigger picture, which is how to craft a program that cuts across PHA divides (both the Housing Choice Voucher and Public Housing residential programs) and addresses all family members.

But we cannot do this alone.  An insulated effort can become too narrowly defined and thus lose its impact. So please post your thoughts.  After all, we’re Public Housing, and “we’re all in it together,” as the song says!