The right direction

Program helps low-income clients find employment and financial independence

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

FAIRFIELD - Thuy Nguyen, 35, knows what its like to have limited possessions.

She was one of five children growing up in the 1970s center of the Vietnam province Vinh Long, a place not too far from Saigon and a place where American soldiers were once stationed.

Their childhoods consisted of working long hours with their mother, Danh Nguyen, selling soup and other foods nearby off the dirt roads of this fishermans terrain.

Their days, Danh said, began at 6 a.m. and ended at 11 p.m., enough time to earn a meager family income but not enough for each child to own a pair of shoes.

School wasnt an option for this group of siblings raised without their father, an American soldier who last saw his children in 1973.

'I didnt look for their father because I didnt want to bother him. Maybe he married again,' Danh said of the soldier, who asked to marry her but she refused. 'He sent us money until 1975, when the Vietnam war was over. I dont want to complain.'

The Nguyens migrated to the United States in 1990, eight years after applying, and they lived in a small Suisun City apartment.

But Thuy started a new life. She met a man shortly after her arrival and had two daughters, now ages 8 and 14. Although they were together for 14 years, of which they were married for four, he moved to Vietnam last year.

Thuy, having lived a life where food and clothing were scarce and local children taunted her mixed heritage, knew she would pursue the American dream even though she could barely speak English.

After years of living on Section 8 vouchers, Thuy enrolled in Family Self-sufficiency, a program designed for low-income clients that encourages families to obtain employment leading to financial independence and self-sufficiency.

The program, which features a time limit of five years, also allows public housing authorities to create escrow accounts where savings are stored. Moreover, it can eventually lead to the purchase of a house through the Section 8 Home Ownership Program.

Thuy graduated from the program in less than four years time, after enrolling in an English as a second language class, working on her credit scores and having a portion of her Section 8 rent go toward a down payment for a house. Thuy became a homeowner on Feb. 15.

'Im so happy, I couldnt sleep. I lost weight!' she said in broken English before looking around the roomy townhouse. 'I want to stay here forever.'

Home ownership

Nguyen is one of four Solano County residents who purchased houses through the Section 8 Home Ownership Program.

Guadalupe Estrada, 39, was once on welfare and ashamed, she said.

She moved from Oakland to Fairfield after a divorce and lived with her four children in a small three-bedroom, one bath house.

It was at this point that she vowed to buy a house one day.

Estrada entered the Housing Choice Voucher Program, an umbrella term for programs such as tenant-based assistance, Family Self-sufficiency and various job programs.

She said it took her seven years to complete the FSS program, where she went back to school and prepared herself for 'better opportunities.'

In 2000, she received a letter from Angelica Rosario, program coordinator for the FSS program, and was informed of the possibilities of owning a house.

'I was the only one who responded to her letter,' she said.

Once Estrada entered the program, a percentage of her earned income went into an escrow savings account, which she used as a down payment for her house.

She was also the first of four to graduate, purchasing her first home three years ago in April.

'I didnt want to be a single mom on welfare getting help all the time,' Estrada said and then added about her house, 'I still get up and cant believe I have this house. Its like a dream.'

Program coordinator

Rosario, the woman who helped Nguyen achieve her goals, is also a graduate of the program.

'I was a single mom without a high school diploma. I entered the program, went back to high school then college and came to work for the Fairfield Housing Authority,' she said. 'They opened the doors for me and gave me the opportunity and resources to give it back to my clients.'

Seven years into her job, Rosario spends her time working with dedicated clients looking to improve their lives. But, she notes, the number of people interested arent as high as expected.

Since FSS came into existence in 1993, there have been 164 clients resulting in 51 graduates. Although the graduates were able to store funds in a savings account with the help of the program, not all opted to purchase homes.

According to Rosario, clients can choose how they will spend their savings. Some have chosen to pay debts, save their funds in the bank or purchase homes without the help of the Section 8 Housing Program.

There are 36 active clients and to date, a total of $440,420 has been allocated to a total of 51 clients.

But, Rosario said, not everyone is interested in the program.

'We sent out 861 invitations in December and got 65 people who responded,' she said. 'Of those 65, we signed up 10.'

Some people fear if they dont complete the program they will lose their Section 8 housing. Thats a fallacy, Rosario said. And there are others, she added, who are scared and unsure of parting with Section 8 housing.

'Thats why they need to meet with a coordinator to explain what we do,' she said. 'At the same time, however, we want serious people.'

And thats when the numbers begin to dwindle. Rosario has a stack of 50 applications to weed through, with 19 spots available in the FSS program. And some applicants, she said, dont seem so interested as they once appeared.

'When I call them up, they tell me they hurt their leg, they cant make it or simply not today. So I move to the next person until I exhaust the list,' Rosario said.

Completing the program has its challenges, however, but is worth the effort.

When Rosario meets with the potential client, they discuss goals, such as going back for a GED, improving credit scores, learning to budget money, how to find the right mortgage and how to keep a house energy efficient.

They also get a one-on-one credit counseling.

'We help them get off welfare and provide referrals, but its up to the family to make contact with agencies,' Rosario said. 'We steer them in the right direction.'