About a decade ago, the Arizona Foundation for Women realized that some low-income women helped by local nonprofits were still asking for help.

A bed in a shelter, temporary housing assistance and boxes of food were not enough to end their poverty. They needed a large-scale intervention.

From this idea, Live and Learn was born. The organization organizes a two-year program for young mothers, victims of domestic violence and low-income workers to end generational poverty through financial independence.

The organization connects women to job training, education and other advancement options that allow them to increase their earning potential. Live and Learn currently offers a cybersecurity training program that gives women access to jobs that pay between $20 and $35 per hour upon completion.

Live and Learn also helps women with housing assistance, childcare assistance and transportation while they are in the program to ensure they succeed. It also provides financial knowledge and mentoring.

“We’re just providing that structured pathway out of poverty that’s really going to get the individual into stable, long-term housing,” said Iris Ortega, community engagement manager at Live and Learn.

The program has proven itself. Hundreds of women have completed it and found better paying jobs and stable, long-term housing for their families.

Last year alone, the organization worked with 225 women, raising their average wage by $10 an hour, which enabled 40% of them to go without government assistance.

But skyrocketing rental and childcare prices are making it harder for Live and Learn to prepare women to succeed. Even some women earning $30 an hour struggle to find affordable housing and child care, which was not an issue at this income level just a year ago.

Childcare and housing thwart budgets

ABI’s director of multifamily research, Drew Ricciardi, expects the average monthly rent in the Valley to reach around $1,750 by the end of 2022, up about 18% from the 2021 average.

Rents in the Valley have soared by as much as 25% in 2021, according to apartment industry groups.

At the same time, childcare services have become more expensive and harder to find. According to Live and Learn, 59% of low-income families live in areas without adequate childcare. About 70% of parents said they had been away from work in the past three months due to child care issues.

Stephanie Castillo, client and manager of the Live and Learn program, said she sees a growing number of women struggling to make ends meet, despite securing a well-paying job.

She said some women in the program receive childcare assistance from the state but still have to pay $500 a month out of pocket, on top of the $1,200 monthly rent for a standard apartment.

“They are still falling short even though they have financial knowledge, they have a budget in place and financial coaching,” Castillo said.

Support is insufficient

Live and Learn maintains a small emergency fund to help women in the program who need immediate help to avoid evictions or utility cuts.

“We’ll contact the owner and say, ‘Here’s what we can help you with.’ But as a small organization, this fund doesn’t get us far,” Ortega said.

Live and Learn staff said they used to dip into the fund only when a customer had an unforeseen situation that left them short of bills. Now they need to use the funds to support women on a more regular basis.

“They’re still only making $25 (an hour) and their rent is still high, so we’re anticipating that in a few months they’ll still have the same problem,” Castillo said.

Live and Learn tries to help clients get housing vouchers or other government grants to reduce their housing costs, but waiting lists sometimes go on for years. And while they can find more affordable housing, it’s not always safe, Ortega said.

“If they move into affordable housing and the crime rate is high or the kids don’t feel safe or they have mental health issues because they don’t feel safe,” said said Ortega.

“Don’t punish them for working hard”

The government has offered more rental assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Senior Customer Coordinator Joselena Cordero said the process takes 45 days or more and isn’t accessible to many people.

“It’s something you have to constantly track almost every day,” Cordero said. “And a lot of these women work full time, so they don’t have time to do that.”

Live and Learn executive director Kristin Chatsworth said the government should have an organization like hers screening customers for help instead of putting them through the cumbersome and bureaucratic application processes.

“Don’t punish them for working hard and … earning a little too much money to get government help, but not enough to be self-sufficient,” she said.

Chatsworth said the Live and Learn program is still working, even with rising housing and childcare costs. Sometimes it just takes longer, which can be difficult to explain to funders.

“(These women) really need long-term solutions, and that’s what we’re doing. It takes a lot longer and it’s often harder for funders to understand because we can’t tell you. say, ‘We have distributed a thousand food boxes’, but we can tell you, ‘We are working on a bigger problem that is going to take years and years to solve,’ she said.

From reception to assistance

Stefanie Nader participated in a Live and Learn program after leaving her abuser.  The program helped her start a new career and find affordable housing.  Today, she works for the Phoenix Housing Department.

Stefanie Nader was one of the first participants in the Live and Learn program.

Nader, a social worker by trade, left an abusive relationship and found herself in several shelters while undergoing therapy and looking for housing.

Nader logged into Live and Learn during her time at A New Leaf.

“I went to every class because I wasn’t going to sit there. I wanted to see how to solve this problem,” Nader said.

Live and Learn connected her with a mentor and a dental assistant training program. Her counselors told her it would be unwise to return to social work as it could trigger her personal trauma.

“I was like, ‘Well, I don’t want to be a dental assistant, but I don’t have anything else to do, so I’ll go,'” Nader said.

Although she didn’t stay in the field long, Nader said she loves dentistry. The salary, which was well above minimum wage, lifted her out of poverty and enabled her to find housing and bring her son home.

The dentist she worked for also gave her her first healthy experience with a man, she said.

Nader graduated from the Live and Learn program years ago, but has continued to work with the organization to help other women.

Over time and through intensive therapy, Nader felt comfortable returning to social work. She was hired as a municipal social worker at the Sunnyslope Family Services Center, providing rental and utility assistance.

With support from the city of Phoenix, she returned to school and earned a master’s degree. She is now the manager of the city’s Landlord and Tenant Program, which educates landlords and tenants on their rights and responsibilities.

“I have the ability to have the biggest impact on the most people and be at the table to help make some of those decisions or to have a voice to say, ‘Hey, this community really has need that,'” Nader said.

Coverage of housing insecurity on azcentral.com and in the Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation.

Contact the reporter at [email protected] or 480-694-1823. Follow her on Twitter @jboehm_NEWS.

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