“Housing assistance paved the way for me and my family”
Virla Spencer is 37, and still in the midst of raising seven children as a single mom. She and her family have received housing support through the Housing Choice voucher program over the past several years. She believes this program is vital for families working to lift themselves out of poverty. “A home is the platform of every family’s foundation,” she says. “Every family needs a stable environment and a stable place to live.”
Yet on August 31, 2016, Virla surrendered her family’s housing voucher. As she puts it, “having that housing assistance paved the way for me and my family. I am grateful for what this program has done for me, and that I no longer need the assistance. I am now self-sufficient.”
Breaking the chains
For Virla, achieving self-sufficiency has meant far more than many years of hard work and education. It has also meant breaking free of a family history of poverty and low expectations. She was raised by a single mom who started raising five kids at a young age. “I had kids at a young age. When you come from a background of poverty, all you know is baby, baby, baby, because there’s a cycle, you know? It keeps passing on and on and on. I made a vow to myself that the cycle of poverty would end with my family—that the chains would be broken here.”
The assistance her family received from TANF and the Housing Choice program were essential in getting herself an education and ultimately, a career, Virla says. “When you’re struggling to be able to pay your rent, who can think of anything else? You’re always stressed out. You can’t get ahead. When I got our housing assistance, it opened up doors for me. I was able to start building up and saving a little bit. Getting myself educated to be able to educate my kids. Because once you are educated, you know better—and once you know better, you do better.”
Virla returned to school to get her high school diploma and started taking college courses. She engaged in volunteer work, starting as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer for the Center for Justice, helping people released from prison to get their drivers’ licenses and reintegrate into the community.
She eventually worked her way up to a part-time program coordinator position at the Center for Justice, performing community outreach. She was promoted to full-time outreach coordinator, and ultimately to Director of the Center’s Relicensing Program. She’s been running the program since 2013. Virla is also close to finishing up her AA degree—and is the best kind of a role model for her own kids. Her two eldest, aged 18 and 20, are now pursuing a college education.
“My eldest daughter got accepted to Washington State University. She was the first child ever out of my whole family to be accepted to university. That was really big for us.”
Extending a hand across the bridge
Virla says that her own education has helped her to teach and show her kids “that this is a way that you can live. It’s what we choose to do. And that has led me to the work that I do.” Some years ago, in the midst of her struggles to support her family, she spent some time in jail, narrowly avoiding going to prison—and she lost her housing voucher. She fought for three years to get her eligibility reinstated. This experience gave her a deep appreciation of the challenges faced by other low-income people after exiting the criminal justice system.
“I work with many individuals who are coming out of prison who are right where I used to be,” Virla says. “They need someone who will extend that hand out across the bridge and say, ‘Come over on this side. Trust me, I’ve been there. I’m not going to judge you, I just want to help you.’”
Virla oversees several different programs that help people reintegrate after serving time in prison, including running a special Saturday roundtable for women. This program is designed to offer budgeting counseling, emotional support, and solutions to these women’s immediate financial and housing needs. “They need someone who can meet them where they are to help them make this transition.”
She gives the example of going to bat for a single mom who was originally denied housing at a local apartment complex. “They were throwing the book at her. But she had paid her debt to society. And she’s a mother, first.” Virla’s advocacy won the day, and the woman and her family are still stably housed today. Virla’s point is that a person’s legal history shouldn’t automatically disqualify eligibility for a housing voucher or renting a home. “We need to take a deeper look at each person’s individual situation.”
She’s been asked to take part in a Spokane Housing Authority workgroup that is also taking that deeper look—at SHA’s criminal background screening policy. “Virla’s perspective and her position at the Center for Justice will help provide valuable input into our process,” says SHA Executive Director Pam Tietz.
“For me, it’s about helping people create change for themselves and their families,” says Virla. “My heart is to serve people.”