In late April of 2020, Irene Dunbar became one of the more than 1,000 residents of Cambridge, Massachusetts to test positive for COVID-19 since the coronavirus first began to spread there. The illness would keep her from being able to work for more than five weeks. When we spoke to her in late May, she hadn’t been paid in three weeks while approval of her request for short-term disability was still pending.

“Had this happened several years ago, before I joined the program, I would not have been able to survive,”Irene shared.“I was able to use my savings to pay my rent, and use the other coping mechanisms, the tips and tricks I got from Compass, to get me through this.”

When Irene first learned about the Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program that Compass runs in partnership with Cambridge Housing Authority, she was on a waiting list for housing assistance. An acquaintance had encouraged her to join the program. Even though she wasn’t eligible to enroll, Compass still invited her to attend a program orientation and financial education workshop. A couple of years later, she received a housing voucher from CHA and immediately reached out to enroll in FSS.

“There’s been some ups and downs throughout my five years in the program,”Irene says.“When I first met my coach, my credit score was in the tubes. Now it’s over 700.”

Contracting COVID-19 wasn’t the only financial emergency Irene faced during her time in the program. From the beginning, she worked with her coach on how to build emergency savings. When her uncle passed away a few years ago, there was no one to take care of his arrangements. Irene used her savings to pay for his funeral.“I didn’t regret it,”Irene says of the experience.“I said to myself ‘I’ll save again’ and started saving again.”

Irene has been working throughout her time in the program, and has seen her salary steadily increase as she switched departments and received a promotion at her job with a local health insurance company. Now, after five years in the program, she’s reached the requirements for graduation and will soon receive a check for the $5,000 she’s accumulated in her FSS escrow savings account.

She’s planning to re-enroll in the FSS program, so that she can build on the progress she’s made so far and focus in on her goal of becoming a homeowner.“My son will be a high school senior in September, and I don’t want to be in subsidized housing anymore,”Irene told us when we asked what becoming a homeowner meant to her.“I thank God every day for the housing assistance I’ve received, but I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m going to be on my own, and I want a place where my kids can come and that I can will to them one day.”

“There’s not much out there for people, especially low-income people, to do things to help set themselves up to be self-sufficient,”Irene reflected.“Because the system is designed to keep you right where you are. This is probably the only program that I’ve heard about that actually helps someone to in the end be done with the system.”


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