Off of welfare, into the light
County of Santa Clara hails success stories
Five Santa Clara County CalWORKs clients recently stood before family, friends and admirers to soak in congratulations. Each had overcome huge obstacles in 2018, regaining their sense of self-worth and moving toward financial independence.
In what all of the County Supervisors described as one of their favorite rituals of the year, a resident from each supervisorial district was recognized for their commitment to getting off welfare (CalWORKs aid, officially).
Likewise, all those clients said they couldn’t have done it without the help of family, friends and caring professionals — County staff, social impact agencies and employers. A domestic violence agency and a food service employer also accepted awards for their contributions to recipients’ success in 2018.
Birth is not destiny
At the awards ceremony, Supervisor Joe Simitian said it’s important that the County of Santa Clara give the client winners the opportunity to publicly celebrate their success.
One by one, the awardees stood with the family, friends and caring professionals who helped them along their journeys. Now their futures look bright again after facing down waves of hardship that would bury most people: homelessness, addiction, illness, domestic violence, hunger, jail and more. They never fully gave up on themselves, and neither did the County of Santa Clara.
“This is a country and a county where the circumstances of your birth do not have to determine the future course of your life,” Simitian said to the crowd. “You have the ability — you’ve demonstrated it — to take charge, to chart your own course, to be who and what you aspire to be. You may need a little help along the way to get there, but that’s what we’re here for.”
County Executive Jeff Smith agreed. He finds the CalWORKs awards presentations one of the most enjoyable events of the year. More fortunate people, he says, often don’t realize that those on CalWORKs are very much like themselves. They just didn’t get the same breaks and opportunities.
“Every year we have really inspiring stories,” Smith said. Behind every welfare client who wins an award stand many others also got back on their feet.
“The employers come back consistently telling us they’re among their best employees and they have the highest work ethic,” he said. “And they have the greatest rate of success because our clients really appreciate what’s given to them in terms of opportunity. They want to work for it; they don’t want a handout.”
Back from the brink
Years ago, when he was helping other veterans adjust to civilian life, Yavante Thomas-Guess never figured he’d be on welfare himself one day.
But then, funding was cut for his position. Out of work with two other mouths to feed and heads to shelter, he confidently started looking for a good job. But he couldn’t find work that paid the bills. Eventually, he and the family lost their home. They spent years with no permanent address. He couldn’t afford to fix his car. Perhaps worst of all, he felt he’d let his family down. He sometimes thought about ending it all to escape his pain.
Finally, Thomas-Guess found his way to CalWORKs.
Working with his case manager, who connected him with various resources, Thomas-Guess now believes he’s on his way back to fully providing for his family. He was honored with an award from the County.
“This award signifies … overcoming adversity,” Thomas-Guess said. “In order to be standing here right now, I had to kind of re-humble myself. I have always thought of myself as a humble person, but maybe I wasn’t humble enough … I was once a social worker on the other side of the table.”
You wouldn’t know it by seeing the confident woman she seems to be today, but Cindy Ho had it rough growing up.
By the time she was a teen, she was using drugs to push her troubles out of her mind. Later, she found herself homeless, depressed and addicted. She survived two bad marriages.
Then the bottom fell out. Just over a year ago, Ho was arrested for using drugs. And she lost the only rays of light in her dark world when her children were taken away from her.
Somehow, though the blow did not extinguish her spark. When the authorities referred her to the CalWORKs program, she saw an opportunity to turn her life around. She couldn’t have done it without the team of County workers who helped her get the services she needed.
Ho took full advantage of all the opportunities. She’s been clean and sober for more than a year and has been reunited with her kids in a safe home. She earned her GED, and she’s currently enrolled in a training program in which she hopes to learn carpentry and come out with a job.
She knows her journey is not over. Life will always have its challenges, as it does for everyone.
But that spark within her is now a steady flame because she knows she has the ability to kick aside obstacles.
“Today,” she said, “I feel like I can do anything.”
Please view the Newsbeat video accompanying this story. Get to know the clients and the network of County workers, partners and employers who rebuild lives in Santa Clara County year after year.
Our clients really appreciate what’s given to them in terms of opportunity. They want to work for it; they don’t want a handout.
Santa Clara County Executive Jeff Smith
What you need to know about CalWORKs
- Contact CalWORKs’ 24-hour automated info line: 877-96-BENEFITS or 1-877-962-3633.
More than 6,000 County families receive CalWORKs benefits at any one time. California law requires families to take on work-related activities in exchange for the help. This year, Employment Services served an average of 2,200 adults a month. Programs include help with job readiness and job searching, vocational training, education, work experience projects and even subsidized employment.
- Employment Services also helps CalWORKs recipients find and pay for housing. It offers homelessness prevention services, child care, youth services, transportation assistance, counseling, domestic violence services and behavioral health services.
- These services provide the means and opportunity for those on public assistance to get on their own two feet and provide for themselves and their families.
- About a third of families on County CalWORKs are employed, earning on average less than $17 an hour. (Minimum wage in the County rose from $13 to $15 on Nov. 21, 2018, an increase of more than 15 percent.) A full-time job at that pay rate brings in about $35,000 a year, which is considered a living wage for one adult in Santa Clara County. But many don’t get that many hours, and most have dependents to support.
- Once a client gets a job and is no longer on aid, Employment Services stays in touch to help them keep the job and advance further.