Boston nonprofit wants to disrupt the poverty pipeline | Crain's Boston

Boston nonprofit wants to disrupt the poverty pipeline

On Monday The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced it will give $30 million to The Boston Housing Authority for a revitalization of the Whittier Street housing development in Roxbury.

It could be the last such federal grant awarded by President Barack Obama’s administration. President-elect Donald Trump and his nominee for HUD secretary, Dr. Ben Carson, have not said much about their plans for federal housing policy, but some advocates fear the federal government will shrink its support for low-income housing.

The announcement went beyond brick-and-mortar renovations. The Boston Housing Authority said it will use the so-called Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant to support its Whittier Neighborhood Transformation Plan and implement a five-year strategic plan.

Some 200 Whittier housing development residents will join a “Mobility Mentoring” program run by the Boston nonprofit Economic Mobility Pathways (EMPath), which was awarded $3.1 million from HUD on Monday. It’s a major infusion of cash for EMPath, an organization founded in 2006 as the Crittenton Women’s Union, but whose history goes back to 1830s Boston, when Crittenton Inc. started helping immigrants and new Bostonians find housing and jobs.

The mentorship program being expanded to the residents of Whittier has been a centerpiece of the company’s work since 2011, with an average of 1,400 participants a year.

“When you start with the neighborhood as the foundation for economic mobility, you help individuals build vital social networks within their community,” said Judy Parks, vice president of mobility mentoring programs and services at EMPath, in a statement upon the Whittier announcement.

EMPath assigns mentors to work with low-income people and families to help them save money, get tax credits and develop habits to break the cycle of poverty.

“Our goal is for a person to live without any kind of subsidy, for them to be successful,” Parks said in an interview. “One of the challenges of being low-income is you have no assets. So you really have no cushion if your car needs work or you lose your job.”

The program worked for Norma Fajardo-Huard. Now a sales manager at Senior Whole Health in Cambridge, Fajardo-Huard said she happened across a flyer for the program when she was living in public housing.

Fajardo-Huard had been living with her infant son Elvis in a shelter in Springfield, Mass., she says, after fleeing an abusive relationship in Boston. Eager to move back, she accepted an offer for an apartment in South Boston’s Old Colony projects that she says she came to regret.

“I was grateful to have a roof over my head, but there were a lot of drugs in my building, a lot of sketchy people… people shooting up in the hallway,” Fajardo-Huard recalls. "The minute I walked in I thought, ‘This is the biggest mistake of my life.’”

She says she thought she wouldn’t last more than a year in that environment, but about a year and a half later, Fajardo-Huard saw the flyer for EMPath’s mentoring program. She still has it today.

Her mentor, Deanna, coached her through finishing her college degree, paying down her student debt and slowly repairing her credit score. Fajardo-Huard got a bachelor’s degree in gerontology and was hired by Senior Whole Health in January 2014.

Her boss, Robin Burger, says Fajardo-Huard’s experience makes her a valuable employee. She promoted Fajardo-Huard in March.

“I actually have to tell her to slow down and not take so much on because she would do anything for anybody,” says Burger. “I absolutely think her adversity has made her who she is.”

Fajardo-Huard’s son Elvis is 10 years old now, reading and doing math beyond his grade level at Kennedy School in Somerville.

That’s the best-case scenario for EMPath, and one it says is encouragingly common. EMPath claims that last year, 78 percent of people in its program “demonstrated upward mobility,” by some measure, such as finding gainful employment or improving their housing.

That still leaves a lot of work. Last year more than 43 million Americans were living in poverty, or about 13.5 percent, according to the nonprofit Feeding America. That proportion is even higher in Boston, where 1 in 5 residents live under the poverty line. EMPath hopes the 200 residents of Whittier Street, where the company will assign five new mentors, will be that many fewer Bostonians stuck in poverty once the program is complete.

The company is also bringing its mentoring program nationwide through a new Economic Mobility Exchange, administered by a network of more than 50 partner organizations.

December 15, 2016 - 2:16pm