Setting families up for success
Nonprofit helps put women on path to securing stable housing, work
By HAEVEN GIBBONS
Caroline Sulek plays Mancala and watches the Mario movie on TV with her husband and 7-year-old son on a Tuesday evening in December after a long day of work at a civil engineering firm. A Christmas tree adorned with homemade ornaments and rainbow lights illuminates the living room corner.
Several years ago, Sulek, 37, didn’t have her own living room, much less a Christmas tree or a stable job. Instead, she was couch surfing, working at Dunkin’ for about $10 per hour and in a custody battle with the state over her son. Sulek had struggled with addiction before she got pregnant and still had drugs in her system when her son was born.
That’s when she showed up at Agape Resource & Assistance Center in East Plano with suitcases of clothes and baby supplies for Henry, her infant son.
Agape started 10 years ago with a vision to provide transitional housing and wraparound support services for women, moms and their children facing situational homelessness and move them along a path of sustainability. Agape owns four townhomes and one single-family home that can house up to 10 families. In 2024, the organization plans to add four townhomes to serve eight additional families. Two families can live in each unit where a common area and kitchen are shared.
The organization identified patterns of barriers and needs from listening to women who reached out for help and designed services to address access to housing, education/vocation, child care, transportation and health and wellness. The approach has shown success, as 75% of women, including Sulek, graduate with higher income into a vocation where they can live within their means.
“They genuinely want to help women be self-sustaining, and that was exactly what I needed,” said Sulek, who lived in one of Agape’s single-family homes from 2016 to 2018. “Because of them I not only got my son out of foster care and ended the CPS case and got full custody, I got to go to Collin College … I wouldn’t have been able to find the money or time to go to school, and when I was in school they helped with child care.”
However, with rents in Collin County increasing at high rates, Agape has seen women who previously went through the program, gained higher paying jobs and were able to support themselves, return to the organization for help in recent months. To address this issue, the organization is creating its own affordable housing. Located on 2.46 acres, Jericho Village will include 38 units of income-based rental homes, a community center, playground and on-site access to wraparound support services, so residents can work toward overcoming the barriers that put them at risk for homelessness.
Rising housing costs
Rising rents are, in part, adding to the increase in the number of homeless people across Collin County. In Plano, for example, the average rent in August 2023 was $1,803, representing a 29% increase since April 2021 and a 52% increase since December 2019, according to Point2 Homes, a real estate listing website.
Homelessness in the city has grown by 16.5% since 2022, according to the 2023 Point-In-Time count which took place in January. Plano’s PIT counts for 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 were 248, 253, 216 and 224, respectively, according to city documents — and around 16% of the homeless population are children under 18, the census says. Plano ISD identified 1,001 students as homeless during the 2022-23 school year.
In Collin County overall, chronic homelessness decreased by 32% since 2022, yet family homelessness and youth homelessness increased by 15% and 18% since 2022, respectively, according to data from Housing Forward.
Housing Forward’s 2023 State of Homelessness in Collin County report highlighted the importance of continuing to prioritize housing interventions that aim to end a neighbor’s homelessness, rather than temporary solutions: “When individuals and families seek assistance from the homeless response system, we must be equipped to offer immediate housing solutions,” the report noted.
That’s what Agape is aiming to do.
How will Jericho work?
The rental housing project will break ground in Wylie in early 2024 and will cost upward of $9.6 million.
A portion of the units, 30% to 40%, will be set aside for Agape grads while 95% of units will target households making 80% of the area median income or below. Collin County’s area median income is a little over $105,000. The majority of the units will be available to households making 50% to 60% of the area median income or below. Janet Collinsworth, founder and CEO of Agape, highlighted that these are people making about $50,000 to $55,000 often including school teachers, municipal workers and firefighters.
“The people that protect and serve our community but can’t afford to live here, that’s who Jericho will serve,” she said.
Agape owns the land for Jericho Village, zoning is approved, and architectural and engineering plans have been completed and approved by the city of Wylie. The development will be self-sustaining, meaning cash flow from rents will cover the cost of operations and debt service. Funding to develop the project will be approximately 60% from equity and 40% mortgage debt.
Additionally, Agape is working with Habitat for Humanity to help Jericho residents transition into homeownership. Collinsworth noted that Jericho will not only address the issue of rising rents but also help the organization prevent families from falling into homelessness in the first place.
“It’s much harder to help someone out of homelessness than it is to help them remain housed,” Collinsworth said. “We want to show this as a model and solution to homelessness and increasing our workforce’s ability to live where they work.”
Agape has long provided safe, stable, transitional housing and access to child care, transportation, education, and coaches for education/vocation, budgeting and as well as counselors and a children and youth program manager. The organization also works with Collin College and other educational resources to help women get certifications and expertise to increase their marketability and income.
Assistance with access to the same support services will be available to Jericho Village residents.
It’s those wraparound supports that got Sulek to the place she is today. She had access to therapy, transportation, school and child care. She learned how to balance a budget, be a supportive mom and gained the confidence she needed to take care of herself and her son.
“I was finally working a job where I was making the most money I’d ever made and it was sustainable and reliable,” Sulek said of her situation when she graduated from Agape. “The people at Agape were always there for me and always like, ‘I know this is hard right now, but whatever you need we’ve got you. If there’s a problem going on, let us know and we will help you fix it.’”
In 2022, Sulek and her husband bought a 1,500-square-foot, three-bed, two-bath home in Little Elm where they live with their son, three dogs and two cats.
“It’s cool to be able to do whatever creative DIY stuff that I want and not have to ask for permission, and it is a good feeling to mow your own lawn and be like, ‘This is all mine’ you know?” Sulek said.
Collinsworth said she hopes Agape’s new initiative with Jericho Village will help give others the same chance to transition from homelessness to homeownership: “That’s always been a long-term goal.”
Alex Kennedy (left), 7-year-old Henry Sulek, and Caroline Sulek played a game as they watched television at their home in Little Elm on Dec 12. “Because of them I not only got my son out of foster care and ended the CPS case and got full custody, I got to go to Collin College,” Sulek said of Agape Resource & Assistance Center in Plano. (Photos by Jason Janik/Special Contributor)
“I was finally working a job where I was making the most money I’d ever made and it was sustainable and reliable,” Sulek said of her situation when she graduated from Agape.
Caroline Sulek (left), her son, 7-year-old Henry Sulek, and Alex Kennedy do some chores before dinner at their home in Little Elm. Several years ago, Sulek, 37, didn’t have her own living room, much less a Christmas tree or a stable job. She turned to Agape Resource & Assistance Center in East Plano for help. Agape provides transitional housing and support services for women and their children.
“They genuinely want to help women be self-sustaining, and that was exactly what I needed,” said Sulek, who lived in one of Agape’s single-family homes from 2016 to 2018.