By Todd Cohen
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Every weekday, individuals who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless visit the office of the Community Empowerment Fund on East Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, or one of the offices of its partner agencies and several downtown locations in Durham.
Those individuals, typically referred by homeless shelters, friends, mental health clinics, hospitals or workforce development agencies, are looking for assistance in finding employment and income, securing stable housing, building savings, and achieving their goals for self-sufficiency.
Since 2009, when it was founded by students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the organization has served over 1,500 people, says Maggie West, a UNC graduate and the nonprofit’s program coordinator.
In 2014, 115 of its client “members” got jobs, and 70 found stable housing. And since 2010, its members collectively have saved $270,000 in their savings accounts.
In 2015, the Community Empowerment Fund will operate with an annual budget of $220,000, up from $170,000 in 2014. It employs three people full-time plus two AmeriCorps VISTA members, and three part-time staff.
But carrying out the bulk of its work are 250 student volunteers from Duke and UNC who work as advocates for Fund members.
Students provide orientation sessions for the 15 new members who visit the Fund’s Chapel Hill office each week. Then, after members fill out intake documents, they schedule a one-on-one appointment with a student advocate to set goals and strategies for meeting those goals in the areas of employment, income, housing and savings.
Two advocates then are assigned to each member to help the member achieve those goals and help them connect with health and social-service agencies, financial institutions and housing and workforce groups.
Members also are encouraged to enroll in a 12-week “Opportunity Class” that focuses on topics ranging from searching for jobs, managing money and budgeting, to building credit, saving money and obtaining and sustaining a home.
Over 200 members have graduated from the class by completing 10 two-hour courses.
The Community Empowerment Fund also offers a savings programs to members that provides matching funds equal to 10 percent of the dollars members have saved — up to $2,000 saved — when they meet their savings goals.
Through an arrangement with Durham-based Self-Help Credit Union, the Fund operates a mobile credit union that lets members open accounts in Chapel Hill and at its partner shelters.
Based on a pilot program with 10 members who already have moved from a shelter to a home, the Fund now plans to expand its savings program and let members who are renters create “individual development accounts” for emergency expenses to pay for rent, utilities, medical needs or transportation.
It also plans this year to increase the number of volunteer advocates, including recruiting students at North Carolina Central University in Durham, and to improve its process of matching volunteer advocates with members to meet rising demand for services. In 2013, the number of members tripled, to 400, and in 2014 grew by another 62.5 percent, to 650.
“The people we’re serving are poor financially,” says West, “but it doesn’t mean they’re poor in any other way.”