Since October of last year, United South End Settlements (USES) has been providing 16 families with unrestricted monthly payments of $800 through its S.T.E.P. (Striving Towards Economic Prosperity) Program.
According to USES’ website, “The program is particularly relevant and important now, as families continue to navigate the loss of income, new expenses, and unprecedented levels of stress on household stability and children’s academic and social well being brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The Sun spoke with USES Chief of Staff, Melody Valdes, as well as José Massó, Co-Executive Director, to learn more about the program and how it has helped these residents and many others.
Valdes said that while USES “had been doing coaching,” and “had supports for families, we understood that something was missing.”
Thanks to the support of donors, USES was given the chance to offer a cash grant program for families, which will last for a total of 18 months.
“This is a direct service of providing cash grants to families with no strings attached,” she said—the money is not restricted for any particular use, and Valdes said that this is one of the most important features of the program.
“This is not supposed to take away from what families are already receiving,” Valdes said, as there is “no purpose in substituting private dollars for federal dollars.”
The families who applied for these grants went through an “income screening process,” as well as an information session.
“We wanted to make sure people understood short-and long-term implications of the program,” she said.
Valdes said she believes the program is going well so far, and while participants were more focused on “stabilization” during the first month or so, now, “families have begun to make plans…longer term plans for these funds,” she said, such as putting it into college funds for their children or paying debts.
Each family has a monthly budget that is reported to USES, though “we don’t do anything with this information,” Valdes said.
She added that many of the families in this program have also enrolled in USES’ financial coaching program.
“I think it gives them hope,” she said. “I don’t think it’s the end-all be-all solution. I think it gives families an ability to hope.”
One participant in the program is an undocumented woman who didn’t have the money to get a lawyer and go through the process to get her green card, but that has changed because of this program, Valdes said. “They’re telling her in two months she can get her green card. She is now moving her family towards having status. I think this is giving people an opportunity to follow through on their goals.”
Valdes said that the “incredible group of donors” are “very understanding” that USES did not want to place limits on what this money could be used for. “They don’t want us to interfere with the natural process,” she said. “We’re able to really give families freedom.”
USES is “hopeful” that the program can continue for a new set of families once the 18 months is up, but they also understand that there will be an “abrupt transition” for the current families when the program ends, Valdes said.
Aside from the financial coaching which many of them are already participating in, USES also offers career coaching and access to other opportunities like going back to school. She said these conversations are happening now, and families are aware of resources and opportunities so USES “can set them up for success 18 months down the line.”
Massó said he wants to thank Valdes and her team for getting this program under the ground, as it is “clearly in line with our mission.”
Families are “shifting from survival mode” as a result of S.T.E.P., he said, and are able to increase their income and connections to other resources. “It really is just a wonderful place to be.”
Valdes said that poverty affects more than just a family’s finances—it also “affects social and mental bandwidth.” She said it’s important to “make sure we are listening to people” and provide them with resources that will address their needs.
For more information about USES and the S.T.E.P. program, visit uses.org/programs/step/