COLUMBIA-It’s a simple manila folder that she opens like a family photo album. Yet despite its plain outward appearance, the contents are important to Beverly Thompson. Inside are a dozen certificates of completion from various training programs including working with databases and word processing.
Thompson is hoping to add another certificate by the end of the summer. She is enrolled in Money Smart, a 10-week course that teaches money management skills to Columbia Housing Authority residents and other people with low incomes.
The goal of Money Smart is to help public-housing residents get a handle on their finances so that they may some day be able to own their own homes.
“I was thinking about going into my own business, but I am basically taking it for the experience,” Thompson said. “I want to get it done so a couple of years down the road I will have it.”
Money Smart is one of several programs offered by the housing authority that helps residents prepare for a life beyond public housing. The programs are aimed at promoting self-sufficiency for people who have often found professional advancement beyond them. Skills and resources such as budgeting and money management are taught and information on buying a home is also provided.
“There is not just one thing that can help someone out of poverty,” Columbia Housing Authority CEO Phil Steinhaus said. “There are tools in the tool box, but there’s no silver bullet. We need to help families connect with other sources in the community to fill those needs.”
For Thompson, the programs are a way to break away from what she describes as a mundane life. She worked as a cashier at MU’s Brady Commons for 10 years before moving to Kansas City in 1998. She came back to Columbia when her health deteriorated and, not long after that, she found herself living in public housing.
Before enrolling in Money Smart, Thompson completed the housing authority’s Opportunities for Families Program, which teaches job skills such as filing, computer programs and customer service. The only obstacle that seems to stand in the way of Thompson’s goals are her health problems. She suffers from fibromyalgia, which causes chronic pain and fatigue.
“Since I started the class I would like to finish it,” she said. “That’s my goal — to finish — and just go from there.”
April Woodall, family self-sufficiency coordinator for the Columbia Housing Authority, teaches the Money Smart class. She said the program’s overriding goal is simple: to help build community through home ownership.
Her students believe in the “American Dream” of owning their own homes, however, Woodall said, many believe it is a dream they will never reach.
“Many of them don’t think it’s an option,” Woodall said. “But, really, there are some really simple steps that can be taken to get them on the path to home ownership.”
Money Smart is a free course open to low- and very low-income residents of Boone County. The Columbia Board of Realtors contributed the first $1,600 to start the program in 2004 and has continued to help fund the class over the years.
“Realtors are all about getting families into houses,” said Carol Van Gorp, chief executive officer of the Board of Realtors. “Families need houses, and that’s why we contribute and see what we can do to help and expand the program.”
Guidebooks and course material are paid for by the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The course qualifies as home ownership counseling, which is required to obtain loan and down-payment assistance under most local and federal first-time homebuyer programs.
Woodall said 199 people have graduated from the housing authority’s Money Smart program since it began. When the program was evaluated in 2006 it was estimated that approximately one in 10 graduates own their own homes.
“We take a run through the entire gamut of financial services,” Woodall said. “These include budgets, investments and consumer rights. We even pull their credit report and work one on one with them.”
If a student is interested in buying a home after completing the program they must find a lender and connect their financing to city or public housing programs that provide housing assistance.
Steinhaus said Money Smart and other programs aimed at future first-time homebuyers help future generations as well.
“This program sows those seeds of future home ownership that might not have existed before,” Steinhaus said.
Thompson hopes the course, which she expects to complete this month, will help her become better at budgeting her money and ease the problems caused by having less-than-stellar credit. While completing the course will be an accomplishment, she’s really looking forward to the day when she can open the door to her new home.
“I’m gonna pray for better health and keep on keeping on,” Thompson said. “I hate to start something I can’t finish. This will be another certificate I can hang on my wall.”