In late July, on the verge of homelessness, Elmario Allen came to our Housing Resource Center needing help to pay his rent.
Now, just a few months later, Elmario, 27, is helping others from becoming homeless. Each one he interviews sits in the place he once occupied, seeking the assistance he once sought, expressing the worries he knows too well.
And Elmario sits across from each, as his counselor - and now colleague - Sajjiah Parker once did from him.
Sajjiah saw something in Elmario. Though he had fallen on hard times, he was determined to reclaim to his future. She also saw that his hardship had tuned his sensitivity to the plight of others.
“When I first talked to Elmario, I was struck by his humanitarian spirit and his desire to help people,” says Sajjiah, a specialist with the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) at our Housing Resource Center (HRC). “So when a job became available in our program, I called Elmario and asked him, ‘Would you like to do what I do?’”
Sajjiah’s intuition about Elmario stemmed from her own story of adversity. She herself has known what it’s like to be without stable housing, during a difficult period several years ago when her marriage came apart.
Sajjiah met her husband at Michigan State University, where they both were students. After she achieved her Masters from Wayne State, they moved to California with their two small children. There, her husband lost his job. The family then lost their apartment. They lived in cheap motels and survived with the help of food pantries.
“I worried about how it would affect my children,” Sajjiah says. “But even during the worst times you make sure that you raise them right, keep them healthy, protect them from harm, and instill hope.”
After the marriage dissolved, Sajjiah moved back to the Detroit area. She and her children stayed with relatives, and she looked for a job. She worked at Neighborhood Services Organization and then Goodwill Industries helping the homeless secure housing.
Eventually, she was hired as an HPRP specialist at the HRC. The HRC provides permanent housing and an array of support services to help individuals and families who were once homeless.
HPRP offers temporary funds for low-income families and individuals at risk of becoming homeless or who have become homeless, but who have a good chance of sustaining stable housing in rental units. The HRC serves as the centralized intake office in Detroit to process applications for HPRP funds made available through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA).
The HPRP program is funded for two years and is now entering its second year. In the first year, our HPRP specialists have taken 542 applications and referred 318 who met eligibility requirements to partner agencies responsible for disbursing the aid to help families stay housed.
“My son asked me recently what my job is about,” Sajjiah says. “After I explained, he told me, ‘Think about it mom, you get a blessing everyday.’ I smiled and said, ‘That’s right, baby.’”
Like Sajjiah, Elmario sees the meaning of his HPRP work in larger terms.
“This is a God-given job,” Elmario says. “I truly believe that everything I went through was for me to get this job.”
Elmario’s life began to fall apart after an incident at his former workplace two years ago. He had worked there for five years and had risen to a supervisory level. Then the incident occurred. He was held at gunpoint, and subsequently, could not cope with the trauma.
“I fell into a deep depression and started using drugs to escape from myself,” Elmario says. “I was out of control and just didn’t seem to care anymore.”
Elmario lost his job, his apartment and his car. He was expelled from Marygrove College, a semester short of his Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration.
Elmario lived with relatives and friends, moving from place to place. Eventually, he began to rediscover his meaning and motivation. He took a job at a grocery store in Southfield and rode his bike from Detroit to get to work. He persuaded Marygrove to let him resume his studies, and then graduated this past spring, becoming the first in his family and lineage to achieve a college degree.
Elmario is one of ten children in his family. Of the six boys, three are older than Elmario. One is dead, one is in jail, and the other is still leading a life of crime. Elmario hopes that his two younger brothers will follow his lead and overcome the malignant influence of their father, who has been in and out of jail and shelters.
After getting the HPRP position, Elmario saved his money and moved into his own apartment in Detroit about a month ago.
“Before this job, I wanted to leave this city because I thought it was the only way to free myself from the terrible environment I grew up in. Now I know my purpose is to help others in bad situations realize that there is hope."