By Francis Koster, Ed.D.
In Louisville, Ky., there is a new form of low income housing for poor, single-parents who are students that enables college degree completion, employment and moving families off public assistance.
This program has already taken 98 single-parent families, all of whom were homeless at some point, and turned 58 of these parents into college graduates, including several professors and lawyers, and the rest into stable crime-free families whose children graduate from high school and go on to college or military service. One word to describe it is awesome. Another is imitatable.
The Family Scholar House program makes unique use of what is called the “Section 8 public housing program” (also known as Housing Choice), a voucher program that pays private landlords the rent for families so poor they would otherwise be homeless. This program already exists in all 50 states. Family Scholar House creates a special “Section 8” dormitory neighborhood located adjacent to public and private universities and community colleges. The dorms have unique admission requirements — you have to have been homeless, and be a single parent caring for children. You need to be ready to be enrolled in, or making good progress toward, a college degree or professional certification program.
To make sure the public funds are not wasted, the housing program requires applicants to participate in a long series of pre-screening interviews. They also must participate in ongoing activities designed to support the parent, the children and the family as a unit. This series of programs begins before being granted a dorm unit, continues after moving into the dorms and lasts until graduation. Failure to participate will result in expulsion from the program, although no parent admitted to the program has dropped out of the program — and all have stayed in college.
And their kids benefit as well. Think of it as the reverse of “you are hanging around with the wrong crowd.” In this case, all the child’s neighbors are families where the adults are attending college — a group of collective adult role models.
In conversations with staff at the Family Scholar House, I learned that they have no known case of a child of a family in the program dropping out of school before getting a high school diploma — this in America, where 1 in 3 youth drop out of high school. Thanks to Family Scholar House, these very poor kids who experienced homelessness and abuse have graduated from high school at a higher rate that average U.S. citizens! And of the children who have grown old enough to actually finish high school successfully, 12 are currently in college. What a stunning success rate!
As my colleague Bethaney Wallace found when researching this story for our website www.TheOpimisticFuturist.org, the Family Scholar House program currently operates two dorms (the Louisville Scholar House and the Downtown Scholar House) containing 110 housing units located adjacent to public and private universities and community colleges. The program anticipates opening another campus housing unit of 57 units in 2012.
All “break the poverty cycle” programs for the adults have an age-adjusted mirror program for the children. Family Scholar House offers activities from those in daycare to high schoolers, including child-care services and book clubs. The support programs not only bring family members closer together, but they also bring different families together with one another in community where the children all play and do schoolwork together.
Residents who work while living in the dorms pay 30 percent of any wages toward rent. The program has a waiting list of 590 families — all fitting the profile of having experienced homelessness and abuse, but seeking a better life, and willing to work hard to get it.
Last year the program received help from more than 927 volunteers. You can learn more about their program at http://www. familyscholarhouse.org/
To take existing public housing dollars and administer them in a way that gets these kinds of results requires dedicated leadership, community support and the willingness to depart from “the way we have always done it.” Louisville Family Scholar House has done that. And so can your community.
We are not powerless to change the future of our country. We can take existing tools, copy the success of others and make things better for the single parent, their kids and the taxpayer. It is up to us.