Charities joining to move families from shelters into self-reliant lives Fresh Start experiment enrolled 9 single mothers

February 13, 1997|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

It's a small program with a large aim: to give homeless families shelter and single mothers the survival skills to stay off welfare.

Fresh Start, a 9-month old experiment in teaching self-reliance, is a joint effort involving Catholic, Jewish and black charities, local schools and business owners. Its mission is to give nine single mothers a chance to start their lives over.

In an age of welfare reform, supporters hope this program will provide a model for breaking the cycle of welfare dependency.

"Most are the second or third generation of families on welfare," said Diane Stulman, spokeswoman for the Associated Jewish Community Federation. Two are recovering cocaine addicts.

The first step of Fresh Start is a free roof over a family's head for one year. That comes compliments of five real estate owners who donated rental units to the program. One of them, Jack H. Pechter of Towson, helped sow the concept of Fresh Start during a conversation with Linda Miller, a Baltimore school social worker. Pechter also recruited other business people to give free rental space to the cause.

The units must be within walking distance of a market, school and public transportation. "I go over and check out all that before we place a family," said Roslyn Lee-Spruell of Catholic Charities, the managing agency.

The families are drawn from a pool of homeless women from local shelters. "We ask them if they are motivated enough to work hard to meet their goal, which is self-sufficiency," said Shari Jenson of Catholic Charities.

The mothers agree to be tested regularly for drug use, and their children's attendance records at school are checked weekly for a year. Each mother meets with a caseworker to discuss budgeting, holding a job and keeping a family together.

"It's not just about paying the rent," said Lee-Spruell. "It's about building self-esteem and rebuilding the family structure."

Clipping coupons, saving money and making regular meals are some of the "life skills" the mothers are taught. "Everyone has to save, so there is a little nest egg at the end of the year," said Stulman.

The steady support system is necessary, said Donna Jones Stanley of Associated Black Charities. "Families who find themselves homeless need a comprehensive approach. They don't need just housing," Stanley said.

Five of the nine mothers are working, and once they are self-sufficient, they will become mentors to women entering the program. Records show that 11 of the 12 children in Baltimore schools are doing well.

A novel aspect of Fresh Start is the extent to which the charities work together. While Catholic Charities runs the program, the other two agencies help find donors and offer services such as staff expertise and counseling. Representatives from each group serve on the advisory board.

The cooperation is unusual, said Stanley.

Said Stulman: " 'We take care of our own' has been the attitude in the past."

Pub Date: 2/13/97

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