The Frederick News-Post interviewed four families that struggle to afford basic necessities, despite, for some, earning more than the federal poverty level. For these families, described in a recent report by the United Ways of Maryland as ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed), social service agencies provide crucial assistance to make ends meet. These are their stories.
$46,000 for a family of three (one adult, two children)
Housing Choice Voucher resource and community impact coordinator for the Housing Authority for the City of Frederick
Veronica Henry signed up for The Prosperity Center’s financial education classes to better understand how to help the clients she serves in her job at the Housing Authority for the City of Frederick.
She didn’t expect that she would also be a candidate for such programs.
She expected that as a single mother with two teenage children, one with autism spectrum disorder and the other a Type 1 diabetic, homeownership was out of the question. Not to mention the $100,000 in student loans from her law degree at University of Baltimore’ School of Law, which rendered her ineligible for any traditional mortgage or lending program.
“When I was married, it was much easier to be a homeowner,” she said in a recent interview. “But upon my divorce ... it seemed impossible.”
Still, she had a full-time job and a law degree, and she rented a condominium in Walkersville — hardly a candidate for financial assistance, she thought.
She thought wrong.
Through The Prosperity Center’s Credit Cafe, a two-part credit counseling and workshop run through Interfaith Housing Alliance, she realized she qualified for a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan program. The program would subsidize a portion of her mortgage in exchange for $120,000 of her “sweat equity” — essentially labor to make necessary repairs and rehabilitation to the aging single-family brick rancher.
As of two weeks ago, Henry is now the proud owner of the Walkersville home. She’s learned to power-wash and repair brickwork as part of the labor contribution, with supplies and guidance from the alliance’s staff.
“I’ve got muscles now,” she said with a laugh.
She continued: “It’s such an amazing feeling, not only to be more financially independent, but the sense of self-esteem and self-confidence. Coming out of a long marriage, coming out of a long time in school ... I feel more capable at 40 than I ever have in my entire life.”
And her prior misconceptions about who was eligible for social services are long gone. Henry emphasized that there was no shame in relying on assistance, and hoped more people would take advantage of such programs.
Alicia Jamison, Jonathan Collins
less than $45,000 for a family of four (two adults, two children)
stay-at-home mother, laborer for NVR (parent company for Ryan Homes)
With a toddler son and a baby on the way, Alicia Jamison, 25, and Jonathan Collins, 35, were just making ends meet for their growing family.
Then Collins was laid off from his job at Thermo Fisher Scientific in Frederick, making Jamison’s earnings as a student loan consultant their sole source of income. The couple struggled to pay their rent, bouncing from place to place accompanied by a series of eviction notices.
Soon after Collins secured a new position with NVR in Thurmont, the parent company of Ryan Homes, Jamison’s company, Squared Away Consulting, shuttered the doors of its Frederick office. She was able to continue working remotely for the office’s sister company while pregnant, but was laid off from that job the week before she gave birth.
During this time, the couple were slapped with another eviction notice. The requisite payment of two months’ rent, about $2,400, was more than they could scrape together ahead of the looming September eviction date.
“We were literally going to end up on the street,” Jamison said.
She’d never been homeless before. The prospect was “f---- — scary, especially with a newborn,” she said.
Salvation came in the form of Advocates for Homeless Families, a local service agency Jamison found through a Google search for “help with eviction notices.”
Through the agency’s Families Forward program, which helps families at risk of becoming homeless afford to stay in their homes, she was paired with a case manager who helped her family secure one of the income-restricted apartments in the newly finished Sinclair Way development. Sixty-three of the 71 apartments included in the project were designated for families who earned 30 to 60 percent of the area median income — about $30,000 to $60,000 for a family of four based on 2016 median income estimates from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The $895 monthly rent for their two-bedroom apartment was much lower than the $1,200 they paid previously. And a grant from Advocates cut the couple’s contribution down to $695 for the first three months with a slightly higher, but still reduced payment after that.
She and Collins still find themselves forced to choose between basic necessities regularly: gas for his car or a visit to a doctor’s office, going without lunch so their children can eat. Collins, who has health insurance through his job, has delayed his doctor-recommended MRI for a hernia because of the costly co-pay.
“We’re better off now than we were,” Jamison said. “But we’re still making sacrifices.”
Income: $14,400 for a family of two (one adult, one child)
Occupation: small-business owner
A 1994 Toyota Celica with 333,000 miles on it gave Chelsea Ciufolo her independence.
The 25-year-old single mother was ready to strike out on her own, moving out of her mom’s house into her own apartment in Middletown, with a new job. The vehicle, a gift from her stepdad, was the last piece of the puzzle — her transportation to work, to run errands, and when her 2-year-old son, Bryce Billow, got older, to take him to preschool.
But the aging vehicle was in dire need of repair, including an oil change, new wheel bearings and front brakes. The repair work cost more than Ciufolo, who works as a laborer for a garden center and has also started her own cleaning company, could afford. The added expenses of rent and child care that accompanied her newfound freedom were already consuming most of her income.
Her inclination at the time was to put off the repairs, hoping she would make it through.
“I would have tried to fix it when it was probably already too late,” she admitted in a recent interview.
Luckily, it never came to that. Second Chances Garage, a local service agency that offers discounted donated cars and repairs to those in need, stepped to the plate. The garage’s Reduced-Cost Auto Repair program charged Ciufolo about $150 to address the safety problems and change the oil, less than a third of the $500 fee she estimated she might have paid elsewhere.
Ciufolo highlighted how the program both for its affordability and the compassion with which employees treated her.
“They actually cared about my safety,” she recalled.
Even so, it was hard to, in her words, “suck my pride in and ask for help.” She never envisioned herself relying on service agencies like Second Chances.
After graduating from Washington High School in Charles Town, West Virginia, she enrolled in Blue Ridge Community and Technical College in Martinsburg. She has halfway done with a business degree before she dropped out.
Ciufolo recently started her own business, Made 4 U 2, specializing in cleaning services for property management and construction companies. She hopes to finish her business degree and expand her business, creating a better life for Bryce.
“Because I’m in poverty, I feel like he’s been kind of shorted, and not able to live up to his full potential,” she said. “I want to give him more.”
Income: about $50,000 for a family of four (one adult, three children)
Occupation: mortgage consultant for Allied Mortgage Group in Frederick
The end of Rebecca Bunai’s marriage forced her to start anew.
She traded in her San Diego home for a town house in Frederick, closer to family and friends in her native Montgomery County. She re-entered the workforce, returning to the world of mortgage consulting after a nine-year hiatus when she stayed home to care for her three children.
And the comfortable lifestyle she grew accustomed to while still with her husband was replaced by one of struggle. Even with a job, her income was barely enough to cover expenses for her family of four.
The cost for after-school care for her three elementary school-aged children was particularly high — second only to housing, she said. The prospect of summer vacation, and with it, costly summer camps, loomed large.
But thanks to persistent efforts — “stalking,” she said — to enroll her children in Boys & Girls Club of Frederick County, she secured three spots in the summer program at the club’s Burck Street building. And the scholarship she received cut the cost to just $300 per month, a third of what she paid for after-school care during the school year, and for twice as many hours of supervision.
“It was sort of the difference between being able to barely make ends meet and having to borrow money or not pay bills,” she said of the savings from the scholarship.
It was the first time she had found herself on the receiving end of financial assistance.
“It’s definitely been a humbling experience asking for help, yes,” she admitted. “But I felt like it was needed, and it was just a huge relief.”
For her children, the camp provided a source of comfort and new friends during what had been a difficult transition.
“The first day, when I came to get them, they were like, ‘we don’t want to leave, we love it here,’” Bunai said.
Even after summer camp ended, and her children returned to Ballenger Creek Elementary School, they continued as clients of the Boys & Girls Club through its after-school program. Although Bunai didn’t qualify for a scholarship for the academic year — she had just received a raise at work — the $90 monthly fee was still more affordable than other options.
She wishes she could give her children more of the “extras” they’ve gone without as a result of her limited income — things like school yearbooks, regular haircuts and extracurriculars. Unexpected expenses such as car repairs only add to her stress, and in some cases, have prompted her to borrow money from family or friends.
But ensuring her children remain safe and cared for while she’s working is not among her worries.