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Starting Over, Part 2

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The sound of 10-year-old Ohanna Salce's shiny violin fills the air in the 1-bedroom Colchester apartment she shares with her mom, Madelyn, and her baby brother and sister.

"I have a place to stay. I can tell friends that I have a house, I can say home," Ohanna said.

But getting a permanent place to stay hasn't been easy for the once homeless family. The Salces were just one of 83 homeless families in Chittenden County-- a number that's doubled since 2008 and has remained flat for the last year. They spent the last six months in the Champlain Family Shelter in Burlington before landing their own place just a few weeks ago.

"I didn't want to tell anybody until I sign the lease or I sign some paper, but then I did and I told staff," Madelyn said.

Madelyn was able to make the move with her children, thanks to a section 8 housing voucher and months of financial planning with shelter staff.

The walls in their apartment are still mostly bare and a kitchen table is not quite in the budget just yet.

"I appreciate having a ceiling over my head and that I can call these guys and it won't bother anybody," Salce said.

"Madelyn is really an exceptional person. I'm really proud of the progress she's made," said Sara Chesbrough, a case manager at the Committee on Temporary Shelter.

The team at COTS has been working with the young mom to help her get and keep housing since she was jumping between her church and loved ones' couches last summer. Sara Chesbrough is her case manager.

Reporter Keith McGilvery: What are her biggest challenges?

Sara Chesbrough: I think her biggest challenge is going to be budgeting for monthly payments-- her rent and her utilities. And so that's where I come in and check in with her monthly and make sure that her expenses aren't out of control and that she's keeping her income to a relatively good level."

Weekly meetings between the two women helped Madelyn find an apartment and save money, two of the biggest challenges for many of Vermont's more than 2,400 homeless. Forty-five percent of folks who turn to COTS for help are doing so because they've lost their jobs or have seen a cut in their hours.

"She thinks, I don't know she thinks, she was helpful, 'Oh you did it all yourself.' I was like, I know I did, I did it, but I did it because I know that that resource, that she was right there," Salce said.

But now those meetings aren't quite as frequent.

"I don't need her in my office every week at this point. I think she's sufficient. I think she's really stable," Chesbrough said.

For Madelyn, keeping things stable means sticking to their plan.

"I wake up at six and wake her up and get these guys ready, get the lunch ready," she said.

Then it's off to a full day's work at McDonald's while her kids are at school.

"When I get off work I go pick them up and then come here, cook and then get them ready for bed and do it again," Madelyn said.

Keith McGilvery: With the families that you see, what are the biggest factors that are driving them back into a shelter situation?

Sara Chesbrough: So, a lot of times you hear the stereotype that you're one check away from being homeless, but a lot of the families that we work with now actually are.


Keith McGilvery: Do you fear being back in that kind of environment?

Madelyn Salce: I do and I don't want to go back.

While COTS couldn't share stats on the number of families who return to being homeless, Chesbrough stresses the better the plan, the better the chance a family will make it.

Keith McGilvery: Is there a point in the work that you do where you can say this has been a success? Can we say we were a success two weeks out or two months out?

Sara Chesbrough: That's a really good question. I think we need some time. I mean, I'm confident that Madelyn will be successful just because of her personality and her skill set, but I think for us a year of being is how we can tentatively say, well, that's a success.

The Salces still have 11 months to go before they reach that milestone.

"Being at the shelter was rough but I dealt with it and I know what I had to do," Madelyn said. "They gave me goals and I did them and I am happy to have my own place."

As is Ohanna, who no longer has to keep the music down after dinner and is eager to have her friends sleep over.

"At the shelter nobody can come in, not even a mailman," she said. "I am happy that I can bring my friends in here and I can let friends and that I couldn't let in before at the shelter."

Some of mom's biggest backers are hoping she'll have a little fun, too.

"I want her to just sit back and enjoy sitting in her chair, cooking her own dinner and all the things that we that are housed might take for granted," Chesbrough said.

As for taking things for granted, Madelyn says her home won't be one of them. She has too much riding on her newfound success.

"I try to make it comfortable for them, everyday life, they're beautiful kids," Salce said.

Beautiful kids with a place they can now call their own.

Madelyn Salce and Sara Chesbrough still have regular contact. Chesbrough plans to check in about once a month. Madelyn says she'll be calling with updates a little more often than that to make sure she stays on track.

Related Story:

Starting Over, Part 1

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