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Helping the Homeless Find a Way Home: The Community Empowerment Fund

By S. Mathur

The Community Empowerment Fund works with the homeless and working poor in Orange and Durham counties in North Carolina to provide savings opportunities, financial literacy, and overall support. The student-run organization has been remarkably successful in helping the homeless make sustained transitions to a better life.

And for those who need numbers to tell the story: from January 2015 to the present, the Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) has found 76 new homes and 106 new jobs and income sources for its members. It has helped members create 101 new active bank accounts, in which they have saved $158,816. Disproving the image of the academic world as an ivory tower remote from mundane concerns, CEF has made some serious headway in tacking the problem of homelessness. The "magic formula" is to address the root causes, by helping the homeless and working poor to build assets, deal with financial institutions, and find the support they need to put their lives together again.

Started in 2009, CEF Program Coordinator Maggie West says that it, "...enables and sustains transitions out of homelessness. Our mission is to cultivate opportunities, assets, and communities that support the alleviation of homelessness and poverty. CEF is a student-driven nonprofit that first began in 2009 as a partnership between shelter residents and students at UNC. Launched to try to address the systemic financial barriers faced by the homeless and working poor in the United States, CEF provides matched savings accounts, financial education, and relationship-based support so that volunteer 'Advocates' and 'Members,' people in the community who we serve, can overcome those barriers together."

The unique success of CEF in helping the homeless to make the transition to homes and new chapters in their lives is based on intelligent planning and the passion and enthusiasm of student volunteers. Combined with the determination of the homeless to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, the results seem little short of miraculous. CEF volunteers also become surrogate family and community - providing support to help members to find and hold jobs, learn financial literacy, save money and build assets, and make significant transitions in their own lives and their families'.

West explains, "CEF promotes sustained transitions out of homelessness and poverty. To do so, CEF bridges two groups that rarely, if ever, intersect: financial institutions and people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity. CEF connects low-income individuals to savings opportunities and financial literacy lessons. We provide financial literacy training through a number of specific programs tailored to meet Members where they are, and help them grow towards and achieve their own personal financial goals."

CEF expanded its work to Durham in 2011 and in four short years, has gone from being an upstart student organization to a life-changing force for good in the community. Home is one of the most emotive words in any language and its absence, homelessness, a personal and social catastrophe. With intelligent planning, passion, and determination, CEF is creating an model for solutions that will surely be very relevant elsewhere.

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