Erin Sessions understands that it doesn’t take much for a family to tip into crisis, or for that crisis to unravel their lives. The case manager of Catholic Charities’ Park Heights Family Stability program has seen it again and again – and has been able to step in to help at vital moments.

Based at Arlington Elementary School in Baltimore City’s Park Heights neighborhood, the program is designed to help families through crises that could lead to homelessness or force a child to leave school abruptly. Services include covering rent on a short-term basis to bridge the emergency, and connecting parents to a wide range of supports – such as job placement programs, food distributions, or help with energy bills – depending on their circumstances.

Clients must live in the 21215 ZIP code, be responsible for a school-aged child, demonstrate financial need, and share a budget that is sustainable over time. Beyond that, clients’ experiences vary widely.

  • One client was forced to stop working as a Family Dollar cashier in 2014 because of a brain injury and ongoing behavioral health concerns. Without a stable income and overwhelmed by medical bills, she reached out to the program, and was later able to find work as an attendant at a laundry facility. Though not her dream job, it has steadied her family’s life, and her daughter is now preparing for her last year of high school.
  • Another client struggled to pay for housing and raise her elementary school-aged son as she pursued an associate’s degree. When the program helped with her rent, she paid off her balance at school, and is now studying social work at Coppin State University.
  • Another client brought in income that covered all household expenses – until she had to stop working when her daughter was hospitalized for a month. Short-term rental assistance bridged the family through this unexpected setback, until the mother could return to work.

Sessions works directly with landlords to pay back rent, with the school and local providers to access other services, and with clients to understand their budgets, their goals and the obstacles impeding their progress. She organizes weekly check-ins with clients over their first six months in the program, shifting to monthly calls as their self-sufficiency increases, charting their progress through an evaluation matrix.

Demonstrated success

With support from the United Way of Central Maryland, Catholic Charities started the program in 2012, and has since helped 165 families with a total of 308 school-aged children. In the six months following their initial engagement with the program, 98 percent of those families maintained their housing, and 92 percent of the children were able to stay in the same school.

The United Way funding aims to support 20 families each year. Over the past year, however, Catholic Charities served 20 percent more than the goal – 24 families – through intense, personal case management and connections to a network of other programs and services.

Terrell Divers, supervisor of the program, said it can be “eye opening” to understand how small the financial gaps can be that trigger crises. A car breaks down. School uniforms cost more than expected. Illness forces a family member miss work.

“It’s a mishap,” she said. “A lot of times when you budget, it can be as short as just a few dollars.”

She described how the program sometimes offers “birthday kits” or Christmas gifts donated from another Catholic Charities program, My Sister’s Place Women’s Center, recognizing how parents will strain their budgets to provide more for their children.

Park Heights is also one of the neighborhoods worst hit by COVID-19 this spring, aggravating already precarious financial situations for many families. In response, Sessions arranged to meet clients at a food distribution site to provide masks donated by Catholic Charities and check in on them.

“We’ve continued to do this great work throughout the pandemic,” Divers said. “We have not stopped. We keep on marching.”