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Steppy Awards: Honoring an angel to homeless moms, their kids

Cynthia Brooks knew that everything starts with housing. She also knew that housing is just the first step in a long journey. And for a quarter century, she's been helping mothers attain and maintain housing and change their lives for themselves and their children. Brooks is the director of Endow-A-Home, which this year celebrates 25 years of helping mothers move from homelessness to homeownership, as one of the most successful homelessness programs in the country.

Endow-A-Home has been kept alive largely through the efforts of Brooks, who headlines One Step Away's Steppy Awards, presented each year by Philadelphia's street newspaper to honor the heroes among us working to end homelessness and serve people in need every day. For a full list of Steppy Award winners, click here.

Endow-A-Home began as a project that sought to fight homelessness among Philadelphia's single moms by giving them the financial tools to own their own homes. At first, Endow-A-Home was like most programs that work to end homelessness — it was about shelter. But Brooks believed that homelessness was a symptom of a larger debilitating issue, and she began attacking the root causes with a focus on intense case management.

"Without that, it's like trying to drive a three-wheeled car,'' Brooks says. "If you don't have case management, it won't work. It's not that the women aren't able. It's not that they aren't willing. It's that they just don't know how. Case management provides the know-how.

"Women write their goals down. Not necessarily lofty, big-picture goals, but daily, one-step-at-a-time goals. Not 'Get your degree,' but 'Call about enrolling in school.' Not 'Become a perfect mom,' but 'Read to your kids today.'

"It's about teaching them how to incrementally change their lives," Brooks continued. "Taking that on shows that we see them as valued. Worthwhile. Deserving. That translates back to themselves, in decisions such as who you pick to live with you, what you see as your goals. They can see that there is more to life."

Endow-A-Home provides homes for as many as 45 mothers (and their children) at any given time. Providing the housing (only mothers with children are eligible, and are able to select a home of their choice from available houses covered by a Section 8 subsidy) turned out to be the easy part. Endow-A-Home's success is based on comprehensive long-term case management and support services that help motivated mothers achieve self-sufficiency and a stable life for their family. Ninety percent of Endow-A-Home's formerly homeless women now hold jobs. Eighty percent have completed GED, college, and/or masters/professional programs.

"I think back to when I was living in a homeless shelter, and I just don't know how I did it," said Samantha, a former Endow-A-Home mom. "But Cynthia became a mother figure for me. She was my rock. She's just an angel.

"That I'm in my own home, that I graduated from college, that I'm a primary care RN, that my daughters went to college – I owe her so much."

"I can still remember sitting at the table, signing the contracts, thinking I was actually going to have a home,'' says Debra, an Endow-A-Home graduate. "I couldn't believe it was happening. Cynthia made it work for me and my three daughters. It was the best thing I could have done. There's no way I would have been able to provide a roof over our heads."

"It's so hard for me to talk about Cynthia; I just start to cry," said Endow-A-Home mom Denise. "I've been a recovering addict since 1989; I'm 24 years clean. When I became disabled six years ago, it really set me back — but Endow-A-Home was there for me. I love her so much. She never gave up on me."

Brooks operates with a skeleton staff and no government funding. Endow-A-Home holds regular workshops for its mother-partners, creating a community where they can lean on each other as well as the program.

"It's like a sister system," said Barbara, a current Endow-A-Home mom. "If you need something, you don't have to go far. For my youngest daughter, to see her mom in a home, to actually get her own room, it was a new beginning. It taught her she could reach for what she wanted."

"Once we choose a home, they come in and ask: 'OK, now what are you going to do? What's your plan?'" said Asha, one of the first Endow-A-Home moms. "We'd get together for those workshops, and we cried every time we saw each other. Emotions were so raw. But after our little sniffle-fest, it was: 'What are you going to do?'''

Brooks also instituted programs for the children of Endow-A-Home moms. This year three children of Endow-A-Home moms will graduate high school and attend college.

"That's what I'm proudest of, over all these years — the kids," Brooks said. "That the kids in our program are growing up, and they won't have to go through what their mothers went through because they're starting in such a better place. That gives me great joy."

"Our mothers come to us most often with no GED, no high school, many fighting addiction, some with a criminal history, almost all of them coming from a situation of domestic violence, they all have children they're trying to raise," Brooks said. "And I come into their lives and say: You can turn your life around. Oh, I think most of them don't believe it at all. But we're telling them they can have a home of their own, and, well, they'll do or say almost anything to get there.

"If they have that dream, just the desire to make their lives better, we can work it out. We'll find a way. The resilience they've shown, to overcome incredible odds to do what they've done in this program, is just amazing to me."