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2/14/04 - Miami Herald

Nonprofit helps homeless get new lease on life -- and home

Low-income families work their way to self-sufficiency with a little help from Carrfour, a nonprofit organization that offers 'supportive housing' to those in need.

By Tere Figueras

Deborah Fields' eyes watered when she remembered the first time she walked into her modest one-story house in Goulds.

'I thought, `I've arrived, here I am,' '' said the 42-year-old mother of eight. ``I'm home.''

Two years ago, living in such a home -- much less owning it -- was a dream too strange to even ponder.

Field was homeless, living with her three youngest sons in a Homestead shelter.

But eventually, like the 33 other South Miami-Dade families honored Friday for achieving new and hard-won lives, Fields found her way to a nonprofit organization called Carrfour.

Carrfour was founded in 1993 by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and built on the philosophy that self-sufficiency can help break the cycle of homelessness.

The organization provides affordable ''supportive housing'' to 430 people throughout the county -- most of them children of formerly homeless or low-income parents -- with the bargain that residents will keep a job and pay 30 percent of the rent.

Staff members also work to help residents stay on track: helping them apply for college, learn the importance of a balanced budget and good credit, and the intricacies of buying and maintaining a home.

This year's ''graduates'' from the South Miami-Dade program, which focuses on families in need, were feted with a ceremony and dinner that included a keynote speech by David Lawrence Jr., former Herald publisher and current president of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation.

''It's about building a network until they can go out on their own,'' said Maria Pellerin Barcus, president and CEO of Carrfour.

Over the years, the program -- which has 210 ''supportive'' housing units throughout Miami-Dade -- has helped a myriad population that includes disabled war veterans, recovering drug addicts and foster kids who are too old to remain in state custody.

And some, like Vicky Hernandez, felt they had no choice.

Hernandez, now 27, fled her long-time boyfriend after she found out he had fathered the child of another woman and married her.

''I just left, and went to a shelter,'' said Hernandez, who has three children she now supports with a temp job as a clerk. She now has a home in West Perrine, and is pursuing a bachelor's degree.

''Before, I didn't like myself. I had made mistakes,'' said Hernandez.

``But now I can see where I am at, and where I am going.''