The Burlington Free Press recently featured the story of a local single mother who became homeless after immigrating to the United States. Alicia Araje struggled to get connected with the resources essential to caring for herself and her young daughter. Alicia persevered and eventually found the programs and support she needed achieve stability and a new job, which then made it possible for her to rent an affordable apartment through Champlain Housing Trust. Written by staff writer April Burbank, Alicia’s story details many of the challenges people in her position face and shows how important housing is to achieving stability and success. Below is an excerpt from the article:
When Alicia Araje stands behind a cafeteria cash register at Burlington High School, she sometimes thinks about the fragile balance of having enough to eat. Some students max their line of credit with the high school, which she believes is an indicator they would go hungry if not for the cafeteria’s service. Araje says in some ways she’s working her “dream job.” She, too, has known hunger. More painfully, she has known what it’s like to deny a child’s hungry cries. Araje speaks five languages and had worked as a legal assistant in her native Burundi before immigrating to the United States. Two years ago, however, Araje was rebuilding her life from “zero.” Her English was poor, and she had trouble accessing the maze of support systems in what she had expected would be a “land of freedom.” She relied on her Christian faith and single-minded devotion to her daughter as she took every opportunity that came her way. “No one was there. No one,” Araje said. “God, obviously, was there, because I don’t know how we survived. I don’t know how we kept going. I don’t know why I didn’t die.” The young mother, 26, moved into a new apartment in July with her daughter, Alison, now 4. She agreed to share her story with the Burlington Free Press through Champlain Housing Trust, the organization that connected her with housing. She hopes her story, as one among thousands, will illuminate the struggles of other families and encourage people to help their neighbors. “I hope every mother doesn’t have to go through what I went through,” Araje said. “I hope any woman in this Earth can never have to experience what I experienced.” Gov. Peter Shumlin has pledged to eliminate family homelessness by 2020, and state officials also are working to cut the child poverty rate in half. But challenges persist. Last month, an annual report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation showed that Vermont, like the nation as a whole, had more children living below the federal poverty line in 2013 than during the depth of the economic recession five years earlier. That year, Araje had divorced from her husband. The separation was swift and left her with few resources. That was their first Vermont winter. “I think it was my first time being in the cold. It was snowing. I never see snow in my life, I never be cold,” said Araje, who chose to be identified by her maiden name. “Ali was 1. I had to move with her on my back, don’t know where I’m going, don’t know how to take the bus, don’t know anyone.” Araje knew everything had changed. She slept on a thin shelter bunk bed for two nights, with 1-year-old Alison lying on top of her because there was no other place. They found emergency housing in a local motel. Vermont granted emergency housing for 1,747 children in the last fiscal year, said Sean Brown, deputy commissioner of the state Department for Children and Families. In a recent legislative report, domestic violence or child abuse were the top factors in general assistance housing applications statewide, followed by chronic homelessness, and family separation or eviction. Unlike food and emergency health care, permanent housing is not an entitlement program — there’s no guarantee of assistance, said Chris Donnelly of the Champlain Housing Trust. “It’s a full-time job, almost, to try to keep yourself in some kind of stable housing,” Donnelly said. “I can’t imagine when you have an infant.” As an immigrant, Araje was ineligible for federal public assistance programs, though the younger Alison was eligible for some programs. “When I went, they denied me. They denied me completely,” Araje said of the initial application with the state. “So I had like a long time with no food. Like a month, I think.” She later found out through the work of an immigration attorney, Erin Jacobsen, that special circumstances meant she would qualify for help. “It’s a very, very, very common thing that immigrants come to me for legal help with their immigration status. … That also means that they could really use some help with resources,” said Jacobsen, a pro bono attorney at the Vermont Law School’s South Royalton Legal Clinic. “And most of the time they’re not eligible.”
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