The goal is to help the family get on a strong footing so there’s less chance they will backslide once they leave. “We’re teaching moms to be independent,” said Maureen Kornowa, executive director of Home of Hope. “We’re going to teach you how to navigate life.” (Home of Hope and Jeremiah Program serve only mothers and children; some other two-generation programs work with fathers as well.)
With the help of her case manager, Pritchett is working on saving her money and budgeting so she will have a down payment on a house or a security deposit and rent for an apartment when she moves out by October; families can stay for up to a year. Her daughter attends frequent activities and programs on the campus, which Kornowa said are meant to provide children with a safe, nurturing environment where they can focus on being kids.
“The whole idea, the bottom line, is it’s a multigenerational approach to ending the cycle of homelessness,” Kornowa said. “You keep that family unit together and teach mom to fish.”
Without the help of the shelter, Pritchett could have applied for decades-old federally funded programs that provide piecemeal support for families, like the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), unemployment insurance and food stamps. While many of these programs are proven to help families and lead to better academic achievement for children, they are administered through states and often fall short of reaching all families in need. Many have lengthy waitlists or cumbersome application processes.
And forcing families with young children to wait for help can have a disastrous impact. Research shows poverty can cause trauma that affects the brain during the first few years of life when brain development is most rapid. This can affect emotional processing, judgment and academic achievement as children age.
At the Jeremiah Program in Austin, this research is why the focus is on helping mothers and children before “poverty has taken its toll on development,” Korpela said.
Mothers receive coaching while working on their educational and career goals. They get life skills and empowerment training, covering topics such as financial literacy and parenting, and explanations of the inherent racism in systems, including those that contribute to poverty — all of which, research shows, can help people develop skills and mindsets that can disrupt poverty.
One program piloted by the United Way for Greater Austin gives parents free tuition and a stipend to train for a skilled trade, such as plumbing or a health care job, like EKG technician. Parents receive a free laptop, transportation assistance and career coaching, and their kids are enrolled in high-quality child care.
“Money is not enough,” said Chastity Lord, president and CEO of Jeremiah Program. “People don’t live single-issue lives, because they don’t have a single-issue struggle.”
Leaders of many of these programs say they see the success of their approach in how well families do after leaving. In a recent Jeremiah Program alumni survey, mothers said they had seen a 68 percent increase in their earnings, on average, since starting the program. Nearly 90 percent of children in the program’s child development centers perform above developmental benchmarks. The average annual income of graduates from the past five years is more than $47,000, slightly higher than the annual median income for families led by a single mother.
At Home of Hope, 82 percent of mothers and children transition into stable housing. Kornowa said the rate of mothers who become homeless after leaving the program is low due to the program’s stringent expectations of moms, which include abiding by a curfew, finding employment, attending parenting programs and saving money. At the United Way for Greater Austin, almost 30 percent of parents or caregivers earned a high school diploma or equivalent credential while enrolled in one of the organization’s two-generation programs.
But these initiatives can be costly to run and expand. Home of Hope, funded by private donations and fundraising events, spends more than $4,800 a month per family in its program. Jeremiah Program had more than $11 million in operating expenses in 2019, and the nonprofit will need an estimated $50.5 million to pay for a planned expansion that would help four times as many mothers and children over the next five years.
Offering high-quality child care alone is expensive. Programs often cobble together funds from private foundations, fundraising events and the government. And programs must have flexible and highly trained staff members who can attend to families’ needs for support. That means hiring professionals who can offer everything from mental health support to parenting education classes. Many programs also rely on external partnerships, such as with local community colleges.
Advocates say the challenges are worth it. When families have these types of extensive support systems in place, it can help them weather storms that might otherwise be disastrous.
“Addressing just one barrier, when there are so many that are so intertwined, is just not a holistic approach and it’s just not a realistic approach,” Korpela said. “You’re taking some of that burden off families to try to be piecing it together on their own.”
With the help of Home of Hope, Pritchett has started to plan for a more secure future.
Since she moved in, she has saved 40 percent of every paycheck for future rent payments and found a new job at a warehouse that pays more than she was making testing routers. She’s had more visits with her son. Her daughter has flourished, too. She was recently accepted into her school district’s gifted program and, when asked, talks excitedly about the many activities available for kids at Home of Hope.
But one of the biggest differences has been emotional, Pritchett said. She is less anxious and more patient, especially with her children. “I don’t have a lot of outside stressors anymore because I’m somewhere stable,” Pritchett said. “I’m just really happy that we found this place. It’s a lot less stress on me.”