Editor’s note: This is the second in a series on the services provided by the Texoma Council of Governments.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series on the services provided by the Texoma Council of Governments.

Housing is a major challenge faced by virtually all people at least once in their lives. The situations can range from being able to afford rent or a house payment, to handling soaring utility bills. For many, it can come down to deciding whether to use their limited funds to purchase necessities or to keep the lights on.

Help for Texomans in these types of situations can often be found through the Texoma Council of Governments. Housing vouchers for low-income families, counseling, education and support services for individuals and families who would like to own their own home, as well as utility payment assistance and weatherization are all offered to qualifying residents in Grayson and nearby counties.

"We have two primary housing programs, the Section 8 rental assistance program and the public housing program," said TCOG Executive Director Susan Thomas. "For Section 8 rental assistance, we provide vouchers to income-eligible individuals or families. They go out and find a place to accept the voucher, and we provide rental assistance, sending money directly to the landlord. It depends on their situation as to how long assistance it given. Right now, we have over 500 individuals and families in the region on the program. We are now a Section 8 provider for Grayson, Cooke and Fannin counties."

Thomas continued, "The public housing program is for Grayson and Fannin County only and it’s different and more complicated than Section 8. Public housing is a program of Texoma Housing Partners, which is a different organization than TCOG, but we have an administrative contract with that Board to manage and operate their public housing program. We have about 475 units of affordable housing across Grayson and Fannin counties, and then a couple of properties in Collin County and I think one in Hunt County. That’s a total of 18 cities, all small cities. Texoma Housing Partners owns those properties and they are, in effect, the landlords."

For its Section 8 program, TCOG also coordinates a supplemental program — Family Self-Sufficiency. The program is aimed at helping Section 8 clients to achieve independence from needing financial assistance.

"The sole purpose of the FSS program is to transfer people out of poverty, to work with them on education goals, employment goals, home ownership training, credit counseling — all different support services needed to reposition their lives where they do not require government subsidies — where they are self-sufficient and can manage and sustain their life, finances and family without government support," said Thomas. "Our goal is to always: Grow people out of these circumstances. Of course, part of the population in our Section 8 and public housing programs are disabled people, homeless veterans and seniors, so, in some cases, we won’t be able to grow them out of poverty. They will probably always be in public housing, because they deserve an affordable place. But for individuals able to gain employment and/or training, we work with them to try and find opportunities for them to grow out of poverty and have happy, sustainable, healthy lives."

Over the last few years, the FSS program has had 61 graduates, according to Thomas. However, she said it’s not an easy or speedy process.

"It’s important to understand that these situations didn’t happen overnight and won’t be resolved overnight," said Thomas. "We’re talking about helping them with employment and education. It takes time and goals. It’s three, four or five years or sometimes even longer. This is not a quick fix program. It works, but it takes time."

Mark Schley of Denison and Travis Peterson of Sherman can attest to the value of the FSS program. Schley, who is legally blind, graduated from the FSS program last week after starting his journey with TCOG in 2007. Peterson, also disabled, has been involved in TCOG’s housing programs for a number of years. Both are now proud homeowners, but say they wouldn’t have been without TCOG’s help.

Schley was born with a genetic disorder — retinitis pigmentosa — which gradually brought about his blindness. After graduating from Denison High School in 1989, he went to college, graduating in 1998 from Texas Woman’s University with a bachelor’s degree in fine art. Though a sculptor, Schley was unable to make the living he needed for himself and his mother, Evelyn Schley. On a fixed, disability income, he and his mother struggled. Housing was a big part of that.

Schley had already been a part of TCOG’s program for the visually-impaired and then learned about the housing program options. He began the Section 8 rental assistance program in 2007. After staying in good standing with the program for one year — a requirement from TCOG — he began working towards owning a home through the FSS program. Counseling, support and information were provided for the determined man.

"They teach you about budgets and real estate agents and other things. They tell you how to purchase a home. … It’s been beneficial because of the support and coordination. They had the answers when you needed them, from financing to how to deal with Realtors," said Schley.

During his five years on the FSS program, Schley and his mother found a piece of land they liked in Denison. The lot contained a structure that had been condemned by the city and would eventually be demolished. The son and mother became frequent visitors to the site.

"For three years, we would go onto the lot and look at it. … The neighbors would call the cops because they didn’t know what we were doing there," Schley recalled with a laugh. "It was exactly what we wanted, and we finally ended up with it!"

Schley’s purchase of the lot happened through the coordination of efforts by Schley, TCOG and Tom Speakman with the city of Denison. Schley signed the contract to have his home built on Nov. 11, 2011, and the four-bedroom, two-bath home was completed in October of 2012. There’s plenty of room for Schley, his mother, and a cherished great-great-nephew who is a frequent visitor. Schley also plans to use the garage as his sculpting studio.

"It’s been a long, great journey, but I never gave up. I kept moving," said Schley.

Peterson shares Schley’s enthusiasm for the TCOG programs. Like Schley, Peterson is visually impaired, but has also endured minor and major strokes since childhood. Determined to become a junior high school math teacher, Peterson graduated from high school and entered college as a math major. However, worsening strokes bringing about partial paralysis and other challenges forced him to give up his educational goals. He lives on a disability income and thought home ownership was impossible. Help from TCOG, enabled Peterson to purchase a home three years ago.

"I’ve been involved in the (TCOG) housing program for a long time. I kept saying I couldn’t afford to buy a house, but I finally got it," said Peterson. "I tell lots of people not to say no one will help you. Until you try and ask, you won’t know what they’re going to say. … My disability check is next to nothing, and I was still able to buy a home. It doesn’t matter what you have or what you’ve got. It’s a matter of what you do with it (money) when you get it."

Delano Smith, the FSS/Homeownership program coordinator for TCOG, is as thrilled for his successful clients as the clients are themselves. He’s also enthused with the overall program.

"I’ve been working with the program one and a half years," said Smith. "When I was being interviewed for the job, it intrigued me so to be put in a position to help people. I thought, ‘Wow! I definitely want to be a part of it.’ … I think Mark (Schley) to me is the most inspirational, him not giving up. He persevered. A lot of clients have been encouraged by him and I’m just proud to watch him!"

For persons who are renting a home or own a home, utility costs can become a crippling financial burden. Under its Energy Service program, TCOG offers utility payment assistance and weatherization to those who qualify.

"I would say the program that probably gets the most attention is our comprehensive energy service program which includes the weatherization and utility assistance program," said Thomas. "They are both income-eligible programs and the income limit is set at 125 percent of poverty level."

The utility assistance program allows people to receive support with their electric or gas bills. It’s a federally funded program with partnerships from many of the local utility companies.

"Some people only need a month of help. Maybe they got behind because something comes up, a medical or family emergency. They just need a bridge for a month," said Thomas. "Other customers need more extensive or longer term support such as the elderly and disabled, low-income. The position those folks are in doesn’t change. The position they’re in limits their income and resources and they tend to need more help."

High gas and electric bills are often the result of insufficient insulation and various other deficiencies. That’s where TCOG’s weatherization program comes into play for homeowners and for those who are renting an apartment or home. Qualifying individuals can, at present, receive up to about $5,000 in weatherization improvements, the goal being to decrease utility (electricity and/or gas) consumption up to 40 percent. Adding insulation and weatherstripping, caulking around windows and wall seams and other like fixes are all services that can be provided where deemed necessary.

Beverly Doty of Denison is one of the program’s success stories. The lively senior citizen who lives on a small, fixed income, resides in a frame home built in 1930. She had always wanted a "big, old house" and was excited when she and her now ex-husband purchased the fixer-upper home in 2000.

By 2002, Doty was living alone and the house had problems she never anticipated and couldn’t handle physically or financially. There was no insulation on the attic, walls or floors. The home’s many windows were loose and without any caulking. The house was cold and drafty in the winter and it was hot in the summer. She needed help.

"You just don’t know when it’s going to happen to you," said Doty. "So many older people just fall through the cracks. … I didn’t know this kind of help existed, and I was afraid I was going to lose the house."

She saw an advertisement about TCOG’s weatherization program and applied. Though she qualified, Doty had to be put on a waiting list for her home to be inspected and weatherization improvements made. In the meantime, she got help in paying the high utility bills.

When Doty’s name finally got to the top of the list, her home was inspected. The first area checked was the attic, and that’s when the snowball of other problems began. Doty hadn’t had the home inspected before purchasing it, a mistake she says she wishes she hadn’t made.

"They found brittle wiring in her attic, so we couldn’t really do the insulation," explained Randy Ellis, TCOG’s energy services specialist.

It was time to call on the city of Denison for assistance. Energy services staff members work with the cities of Denison and Sherman when situations such as this arise, said Brenda Smith, program manager for TCOG.

"Cities like Denison and Sherman have programs to help with things like this through community block grants. … Tom Speakman with the city of Denison is a fine example of what happens when we can all work together. None of us can do everything," Smith explained. "Small cities don’t have that advantage, so we try to use other money to help as we can."

After contacting Speakman, arrangements were made to correct the wiring problems in Doty’s home. Due to the delay caused by the wiring issue, Doty had to go back the bottom of the weatherization waiting list.

In 2012, while Doty was still on the list, and just before cold weather hit, she began to smell gas in her home. Having already developed a good relationship with Ellis and others in the program, Doty called and asked what to do. Another quick check revealed not only leaking gas in the house, but carbon monoxide as well. Doty’s hot water heater and wall heaters weren’t functioning properly and didn’t meet code.

"I called Randy and he started sending people in," said Doty. "It was an answer to prayers for me. … You know the Bible says God will supply our needs, not our wants."

Due to Doty’s needs within the home, the city and TCOG began repairs as soon as possible. A new hot water heater and three energy-efficient gas heaters were installed, replacing the six old, poorly functioning heaters. Insulation was placed throughout the home, windows and wall seams were caulked, smoke detectors were placed, weatherstripping and other needed repairs were made. All the work was completed recently and the excited homeowner is thrilled with the unexpected help.

"I’m just so thankful for all they’ve done. It’s just amazing," said Doty who is now enjoying a warm, draft-free home. "It was well worth the wait. It’s all come together. I prayed a lot, and God sometimes just takes his good, old time in answering. … I never expected all these problems to just start to domino, and I had no idea the city could help me."

During the lengthy process, Doty even found out TCOG could help with non-house-related problems.

"I had some dental problems during all this, and they even helped me with those, too," said Doty.

Smith said Doty’s willingness to stay in contact with Ellis and others within the program went a long way in helping Doty get the needed weatherization and repairs.

"She did her part by communicating with us," Smith said.

The number of homes that can be weatherized each year depends on the funding, said Ellis, who has been with the program since 2010. There are a total of seven contracting teams that are used by TCOG for its weatherization program.

"Now, we’re shooting for about 120 homes a year," said Ellis.

Smith said there are between 120 and 140 people on the weatherization waiting list at this point.

"We’re really moving the list quicker as we have more contractors now," said Smith. "As far as how many we can do, when we know (each year) how much funding we’re going to get, then we can plan on how many houses we can do."

Ellis said the program accomplishes several goals.

"The whole program is designed to cut energy costs. But it makes people more comfortable and the house is more energy efficient," said Ellis. "It’s nice to come into a home and see that they really need help and then be able to help the ones we can. We can’t help everyone, though. Sometimes the house is in such bad condition that it’s beyond the scope of what we do. Some of them are about to fall down, and there’s just not enough funding available for us to make a difference."

For information on the energy services program, call 903-813-3537. For information on all of the programs available through TCOG, dial 2-1-1.