When Sheri Crane moved into Bangor’s low- to moderate-income Capehart neighborhood with her three children in 2018, she told herself it would only be for a short time. She had been working minimum-wage jobs and had just finished a stint at a women’s shelter.
“I knew it was going to be temporary as much as I could help it,” she said. “I would rather be making it on my own. I’ve always been an independent person.”
Soon after, she saw a pamphlet for the Families Forward program in the lobby of the Bangor Housing Authority, and she enrolled herself, her 12-year-old son and her two younger daughters, who are 6 and 7.
Today, the Crane family is one of 90 that participate in the program that aims to improve the families’ economic situation. Parents receive coaching so they can achieve financial literacy, find better-paying jobs, enroll in higher education, and improve parenting skills. They also gain access to financial help such as gas cards and money for emergency expenses. Children can receive child care through BangorHousing’s partnership with the Bangor Boys and Girls Club.
“Part of who I am is I want to know what resources are available to me and use them to get to own my own home or be in a different neighborhood,” Crane said.
A team of Urban Institute researchers who studied the program and published a report last year found that the participating adults were more likely to be employed full time after participation and that they improved in evaluations of their parenting skills and community involvement. As the Biden administration reworks the federal government’s approach to fighting poverty, the Bangor program offers an example of what can happen when poverty-fighting efforts are tailored to families’ specific individual needs, one of the researchers said.
Families Forward launched in November 2017 and is funded by the Maine-based John T. Gorman Foundation, which contributed $267,000 in 2019, according to the most recent available financial records. The foundation also funds a two-generation, poverty-fighting program in Washington County.
Each family is part of a group of families with children of similar ages who are paired with a coach to help them set and reach particular goals having to do with responsible budgeting, improving credit and finding jobs. In addition, some families participate in a 14-week “Strengthening Families” class that helps kids and parents navigate discipline, communication, bonding with other families and building a community with other families in public housing.
Crane met monthly with a coach who helped her meet goals such as improving her credit score and accessing other needed resources, including transportation.
“I love how they look at every piece of the puzzle of what could be going on in a person’s life,” Crane said. “They don’t force you to share everything.”
The program started in response to a need for support that helped the entire family, said Liz Marsh, BangorHousing’s director of resident services.
“It’s hard for kids to succeed if adults were struggling or didn’t have their needs met, or especially if kids had special needs or mental health issues,” she said.
The child care component and other support for children help parents focus on what they need to do to improve their families’ situation, said Heather Higgins, a coach who works with participating families.
“If kids are not doing well, or have no stable place to go, parents can’t focus on what they want to do,” she said.
In Capehart, BangorHousing offers affordable, two- to three-bedroom homes for families of up to six who make $68,700 a year or less. Federal thresholds define poverty as families of six who make $53,370 or less, and “low income” is defined as those whose incomes don’t exceed 150 percent of the poverty line.
Capehart houses 479 families. Single mothers head 298 of those households. Seventy-six percent, or 365 Capehart families, receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, better known as food stamps. Ten percent, or 48 families, receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits, Marsh said.
The Families Forward program is one example of a recent turn toward directly addressing families’ material needs, Urban Institute fellow Susan Popkin said.
In March, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law. It increased the child tax credit from $2,000 to $3,000 per child up to age 17, and provided another $600 for each child under 6. The federal government will pay out part of the credit in monthly installments for the rest of this year. The White House has said the new funding will lift more than 5 million children above the poverty line this year, reducing child poverty by more than half.
Previous administrations had focused on enforcing work requirements and viewed assistance programs through a lens of compliance, Popkin said. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order mandating federal agencies adopt more stringent guidelines that would force adults on federal assistance to find employment.
“Now we’re recognizing that people are facing a lot of barriers and we need to meet them where they are,” she said, listing child care and lack of reliable transportation as two such barriers that often impede parents from working.
“There’s more recognition now that you can’t just expect people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps when they don’t have bootstraps to begin with,” Popkin said.
Access to affordable child care is a challenge in Bangor, with few slots available, Higgins said. Even when slots are open, the available options often clash with parents’ schedules, particularly for those who work outside normal business hours or attend school.
Families who participate in Families Forward can opt in to child care and other programming through BangorHousing’s partnership with the Bangor Boys and Girls Club. Participants can access resources and services including career counseling, tutoring and job training through partner agencies such as Penquis, MaineStream Finance, Goodwill and the Maine Educational Opportunity Center.
Families Forward also provides direct services such as $10 gasoline gift cards and funding for emergency expenses.
“It seems small, but there were so many times [my car was running] on empty when going to meetings, and getting that gift card was a big deal,” Crane said.
She remembered a time when she needed new winter tires but could only spare $100.
“I filled out a form and [Families Forward] paid the auto body shop the remainder of the bill directly,” she said. “It was such a huge weight off my shoulders.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Strengthening Families class and meetings went remote. Crane was disappointed, and felt like participating on Zoom hurt her ability to connect with other families. Overall though, she said, “it’s been a wonderful experience.”
In May, she graduated from St. Joseph’s College in Standish with a bachelor’s degree in health administration that she earned online. She now works at a Bangor nursing home, and hopes eventually to move out of Capehart and own her own home.
“I’m grateful for how Bangor Housing has given my kids and myself a home and a stepping stone to getting back on our feet,” she said.