WAIPAHU, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - As part of a program that encourages people to get off public assistance, state officials recently gave a Waipahu family a $30,000 check.
The money represented five years of savings: As part of the program, rather than the state keeping rent increases that public housing or Section 8 families must pay when their income goes up, those funds went into an escrow account.
After five years, families can cash out.
And last week that's just what the Michael family did. The state gave Cynthia Michael and her family their accrued savings, which totaled $30,500.
Michael and her family have been on public assistance since they arrived in Hawaii from Guam seven years ago. For the last few years, they've been renting a house in Waipahu using Section 8 housing vouchers.
The Michael family is the 41st to graduate from the Hawaii Public Housing Authority's family self-sufficiency program.
Michael, who is a certified nursing assistant, and her husband, a butcher, were able to save that money through the program based on raises they've gotten since 2010.
In an interview this week, Michael said, "I think it's better not just to rely on public assistance all the time. It's better to better yourself."
The state requires participants in the self-sufficiency program to go through all kinds of training during the five years that their savings is growing.
"How to save money, how to deal with your debt, eliminate most of it. That way, in the future you can be self sufficient," Michael said.
Participants have used the savings for various things: to pay off debts, buy a new car, send their children to college or make a down payment on a home.
What will the Michael family do?
"We're planning to buy a house and there's no way we could do it without the help of the housing authority," said Michael, who plans to go to a bank next week to pre-qualify for a mortgage loan.
She and her family hope to begin their search for a new home in Wahiawa.
Her oldest son, CJ Apimwar, 19, said, "It could really lead to a better future for the entire family."
Hakim Ouansafi, executive director of the housing authority, said that the goal of public housing and Section 8 is to get help and them move on to "leave room for somebody else who wants to join in."
Ouansafi said 18 of the 41 families that have graduated from the program in recent years have left public housing or Section 8 and two of them have been able to buy homes. Another 89 families are enrolled in the savings program and are taking the required financial self-improvement classes, he said.
"I think these success stories, they show that with the proper tools and the proper assistance and guiding them through the process, they're like you and I. They want to do good for their families and they want to be independent of public housing," Ouansafi said.
He said check amounts that families receive after the five-year saving program range from several thousand to as high as $31,630.
Ouansafi said he believes the program especially helps the children of people on public assistance because "they are no longer locked into that stereotype that you're going to live in public housing for life.
"Now they see their parents doing much better."