Woman who moved out of public housing helps others do same

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 28, 2011

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — Stephanie Bruce grew up in public housing. Now she helps people move out of it.
Bruce, 45, serves as the new coordinator for the Family Self-Sufficiency program at Salisbury Housing Authority. Bruce graduated from the program herself in 2004, learning skills and saving enough money to move out of Civic Park Apartments a year later and buy her own home.
When Bruce talks to tenants about enrolling in the program and they hesitate, she uses herself as proof it can work. As long as they are willing to make the effort, she says.
All her adult life, Bruce was determined to leave public housing and become a homeowner.
“It was hard and very challenging,” she said. “I knew against all odds I had to keep moving forward. That’s why I sometimes would work two jobs and why I endured school and work, and why I didn’t have a social life for a while.
“I gave up some things, but I think I gained a lot more.”
Bruce has fond memories of living in public housing as a child with her mother, three sisters and grandparents. The neighborhood acted as an extended family, with people helping to raise each other’s children.
Her mother always worked, Bruce said, and instilled a strong work ethic in Bruce and her sisters.
As an adult, living in public housing was a much different experience for Bruce. Most of the people living around her did not have a job.
Bruce found in the self-sufficiency program the support and comradery she needed to help achieve her goals.
“I was accustomed to working. Something in me always said I need to work,” she said. “Within the neighborhood, it’s kind of hard to stay motivated when people around you don’t share the same goals and interests.”
Bruce graduated from Salisbury High School in 1984 and attended Johnson C. Smith University for two years. She was the first person in her family to go to college.
When her mother became ill, and Bruce dropped out to help care for her. Then Bruce had a baby.
She abandoned her college career and went to work to provide for her son and family, taking jobs in manufacturing plants and fast food restaurants. Living in Civic Park Apartments in 1991, Bruce never gave up on her dream to earn a college degree.
Coordinator Zelda Turner began talking to her about the Family Self-Sufficiency program. Although Turner was persistent, Bruce said she was struggling to make ends meet and raise her son, while helping to care for her mother. She just wasn’t ready.
“Sometimes you get so bogged in today it’s hard to think about next week or tomorrow or even the next hour,” Bruce said. “I was in the mode of survival.”
Eventually, Turner convinced Bruce to enroll.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” Bruce said. “I still thank her for that.”
The self-sufficiency program, which went dormant after Bruce graduated and was renewed by Sam Foust when he took the helm at Salisbury Housing Authority, is designed to help families get off government assistance and become financially independent.
The program provides bus fare to get to school, appointments and job interviews. Participants learn how to budget their money and other life skills.
As coordinator, Bruce connects participants with resources in the community. On their own, tenants — who often do not own a computer — may not discover places like the R3 re-employment center in Kannapolis, the first-time homebuyers program at Salisbury Community Development Corporation or services offered through the Employment Securities Commission.
“It’s so much easier if you have someone to help and guide you,” Foust said.
Participants work with Bruce to set goals and map out a five-year plan to accomplish them. Like Bruce, most put “college degree” at the top of their list.
In 2001, at age 35, Bruce enrolled at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. It had been 15 years since her last college course. She transfered to Catawba College and earned a degree in business adminstration.
“I still can’t believe it,” she said. “It was awesome.”
While going to school, she worked a split shift at a group home. She didn’t have a car, and if she stayed late to study or get help from a professor and missed her ride, she walked several miles home.
Bruce describes her life as a struggle during those years. As a single mother working and going to school full-time, money was tight and stress was high.
“It was not easy,” she said. “The hardest part was staying focused.”
With help from her family and Mt. Calvary Holy Church, Bruce kept working toward her goals. She found hope and motivation in the word of God.
“The word just drew me,” she said. “The church reached me right where I was at.”
Her church family provided emotional support and sometimes more. Once, when Bruce lost her job and had no transportation, a church member gave Bruce her car, filled with gas, to use for job interviews.
The self-sufficiency program requires participants to deposit any additional income they earn while they are enrolled into an escrow account, which they receive when they graduate. They can withdraw money during the program to buy something goal-related. Bruce took out money to buy a laptop.
When she completed the program, Bruce had accumulated $3,000 in escrow. The money went toward the down payment on a Habitat for Humanity house.
To finish, participants must achieve all their goals and hold a job for 12 months. That takes five years for most people, but some do it in as few as three years. Bruce needed seven years.
In 2005, she began working for the Salisbury Housing Authority. Five years later, Foust resurrected the Family Self-Sufficiency program and made Bruce the full-time coordinator.
“I saw the need to develop the whole person, rather than just provide housing for someone,” Foust said.
The more he heard learned about the program, which is offered at housing authorities across the country, and the more he got to know Bruce, Foust said he knew the program needed to come back and Bruce was the one to lead it.
“I saw her passion. She was helped at one time, so she in turn wants to help others,” he said. “I saw that she has that connection to folks that she was working with, and I knew she would be able to do more in her new position.”
Bruce gives the program legitimacy, Foust said.
“I can always point to Stephanie and say, ‘It can be done. All you have to do is want to do it,’ ” he said. “It has so much more value, because she is speaking from experience.”
Bruce provides an excellent role model for public housing tenants who want financial independence.
“She knows exactly what they’re going through,” he said. “She’s had to overcome obstacles and barriers.”
Since taking over the program, Bruce has built enrollment to 21 families. So far, two have graduated. Some families have left the program, unable to keep up with the requirements.
Bruce hopes they will be back.
“They have to be at a place in their life where they are ready to do the work,” she said.
The 90-day joining process serves as a way to screen participants. In the first three months, tenants must complete vocational testing, set goals and attend meetings.
“I can tell within that time period,” Bruce said. “If they keep appointments and follow up, they are going to be good participants.”
Bruce knows it’s hard — she’s been there.
“I have an absolute understanding of what they are dealing with, so I can empathize with their situations,” she said.
She talks to each of the 545 families in Salisbury Housing Authority about the self-sufficiency program. New tenants go through an orientation process that includes Bruce, and she publishes a newsletter with information about the program, sharing success stories about people who have met a goal or completed the program.
“Most people are scared to do something different,” she said. “They are in this cycle of doing the same thing and getting the same result.”
Bruce works to show tenants that financial independence can change their life. If bureaucracy intimidates tenants, Bruce said she will “hold their hand through the process.”
“What Stephanie does so well is to help people navigate the red tape and get into the right person at the right time,” Foust said.
Rather than an “authority,” Bruce wants tenants to see the public housing agency as a partner ready to help them accomplish their goals.
“It’s important that residents are able to live their best life,” she said. “We’re here to partner with them, and not just tell them what do to.”
Bruce laughs when she says “I’ve turned into Zelda.” Just like Zelda Turner, the former coordinator who convinced her to join, Bruce now pesters people to sign up.
Bruce’s caseload will reach capacity when she has 25 families. Foust is pursuing grants to fund a second full-time position for the self-sufficiency program.
“I wish I had three more just like her,” he said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

Working to become financially independent
By Emily Ford eford@salisburypost.com SALISBURY — Kizzy Watson has changed her ways. Instead of shopping and splurging, she now spends her money — and her time — trying to gain financial independence and move out of public housing. “I’m learning to save and the value of a dollar,” said Watson, 32. She saved $30 in one month on groceries by using coupons. She created a budget, and she sticks to it. Next month, she begins classes at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and plans to work in a medical office when she graduates. For these changes in her life, Watson thanks one person — Stephanie Bruce. “She’s an inspiration to me as a mentor and a woman,” Watson said. “She’s gone through what I’m going to go through.” Watson has joined the Family Self-Sufficiency program at the Salisbury Housing Authority. Bruce completed the program in 2004 and now serves as coordinator. Several years ago, Bruce began talking to Watson about the program, coaxing her to join. “I listened to her respectfully, but I didn’t take her advice,” Watson said. “I wish I had. You’d probably be taking a picture of me in my own home.” Then, Watson lost her job and decided to give it a try. She calls the program “wonderful” and encourages other public housing tenants to consider the benefits. “Don’t be ashamed to ask for help,” Watson said. “Get yourself back on track.” She has set nine goals, including earning a college degree, buying a home, obtaining full-time work and improving her credit score. It takes about five years to complete the program. During a recent home visit in the tidy, small apartment Watson shares with her mother, Bruce asked for a progress report on several tasks assigned the week before. Each goal has a process and a time frame, and Bruce keeps her tenants on schedule. “I love a good challenge, and Stephanie gives you each step,” Watson said. With no car and no computer, Watson has several challenges to overcome. Bruce provides bus passes for transportation, and Watson can take money out of the her escrow account to buy a computer. The rest she plans to save for a down payment on a house. “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” Watson said. “I have goals and dreams just like a millionaire does. I just have to take more steps to get there.” After their meeting, Bruce and Watson laughed and shared a few stories. “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish,” Bruce said, encouraging Watson as she prepared to leave. “And it’s just the beginning for me,” Watson said. Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.