Of Many Things

What happens when your family lives from paycheck to paycheck and a sudden emergency arises? As many working poor people have found, you and your children may fall into homelessness. But Lori Lambert, executive director of the Bridge Fund of Massachusetts, has as her goal to prevent homelessness before it happens. She stopped by America House one day to describe how she began her work six years ago from my dining room table without a penny in the bank. With free space provided by the president of her new board, she applied to various foundations to supplement contributions from individual donors. One hundred percent of what comes in goes out to serve clients, she said.

Although she has added her own dimension to the program through its strong personalist approach, the Bridge Fund has its prototype in a larger, similar undertaking in New York City. Lori Lamberts fund provides interest-free loans to families at risk of sliding into homelessness. There are few organizations that provide housing help for this group of working poor, she said. With market rents running up to $17,000 a year for a two-bedroom apartment, many parents cant get by. Some spend as much as three-fourths of their income on rent alone. One mishap, like a temporary lay-off, can mean falling behind in the rent and all-too-possible eviction. Families come to her through referrals by social workers in church or civic agenciesan important procedure because referrals legitimize them in terms of having already worked with someone who has assessed the families needs. With the help of interest-free loans, they can regain their footing without having to enter the shelter system.

Once clients have been referred to her, Lori sits down with them and creates a supportive relationship. This is a key to the programs success, she said, because typically, people come in to see me stressed out at the thought of losing their housing and the impact that would have on their children. So our program aims at eliminating that burden. She went on to say that thanks to the relationship of trust, they realize that Im not the welfare department and that I wont make them jump through a lot of hoops. The next step is to work out a budget together and to establish a plan for repaying the loans, which average between $1,000 and $1,500. Some can pay back $5 a month, others $50. But the repayment rate is high, she explained, because the clients know that they are ultimately helping someone else: the money that is repaid goes right out the door to another family in a similar situation.

If the same family runs into rent difficulties six months or a year later, Lori said, they can call and we will assist againits not a one-time arrangement so long as they made an effort to give back to the program. This is how she sees clients as partnering with her and, as she put it, joining the Bridge Fund family. In her view, the program works because of the one-on-one approach, and because she maintains contact on a monthly basis. The clients have my cellphone number, and they know they can call me seven days a week. As to the make-up of the clients, Lori said that about a third are intact families, with the larger portion single mothersmany of whom work two jobs with nothing left at the end of the month. Most, she added, have never been hooked into the systemthat is, on welfare or in shelters.

Besides funding from foundations and individuals, some donors offer what Lori terms restricted donations, meant to help clients with specific needs. With the current sky-high cost of heating, the coming of winter may force them to choose between a warm apartment and paying the rent. Luckily, she observed, I have had donors who realize this kind of Catch-22 situation, and they have made restricted donations specifically to assist with utility costsnot as loans, but as outright grants. The same is true for people who are elderly or disabled. Some grants have even been used for moving expenses, when that becomes unavoidable.

Since the program began, Lori said, over 1,250 people have been kept stable and housed. The Bridge Fund has thus created a safety net for a group of people for whom one had never before existed. They are my heroes, she said of her clients, and their commitment to their families and their courage keeps me in awe of them. What has been accomplished in the way of concrete help and the restoration of dignityall began at a young womans dining room table.

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