Bringing opportunity to those who need it most

October 02, 2017 | GET MORE : Social Responsibility

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U.S. Bank has helped Seattle nonprofit El Centro de La Raza open doors to affordable housing and kick-start careers with an entrepreneurship program

Angélica María González was homeless for so many years she doesn't remember the first time she spent the night on the streets – but once she became a mother, the fear was unbearable.

"I had no money, no place to go and no one I could call for help," says González, 30, tears pooling in her eyes as she recalled how difficult life was for her and her children, ages 2, 5 and 11. 

Abandoned by her parents at a young age, González was savvy about surviving on the streets of Seattle, but her children needed a safe place to sleep and grow up. She held several jobs and earned a bachelor's degree in political science, but her salary was not enough to pay for security deposits and childcare. At times she had a place to live, but she couldn't keep up with the rent. 

"Homeless single moms are viewed as lazy, like we want to suck up the system, but that is not true," says González. "The truth is that even with an education is hard to find a good paying job."

González learned that El Centro de La Raza, a nonprofit organization located in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, was accepting applications for its new 110 unit apartment building, known as Plaza Roberto Maestas, for low-income families. El Centro received 500 applications for the apartments on the first day these were accepted.

"If it wasn't for this program, I would still be struggling on the streets," said González (pictured below), who moved into one of the units in August 2016. 

Through its subsidiary U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corporation (USBCDC), U.S. Bank invested more than $20 million in federal low-income housing tax credits and provided $27 million in construction loans from its community lending division. 

"We are proud of how we were able to bring our institution to help El Centro's vision for Plaza Roberto Maestas," said Zack Boyers, CEO of USBCDC. "I'm excited to consider ways to do even more with customers like El Centro who share our values and are striving to bring opportunities to those who need it the most."

"I was very passionate about this project because it has become a destination for people and families who are in need of services," added Ann T. Melone, vice president of affordable housing at USBCDC.

The mixed-use complex, named Plaza Roberto Maestas in honor the late founder and executive director of the social services agency, recently added an entrepreneurship program for food cart vendors to its Business Opportunity Center. USBCDC donated $50,000 to renovate a commercial kitchen for vendors to use, purchase carts that they could rent and give $1,000 to each vendor to buy supplies and obtain a license.

"U.S. Bank was so helpful through this process," states Estela Ortega, Maestas' widow and the executive director of El Centro, which is celebrating 45 years in October. "If it weren't for them, we wouldn't be this far [ahead]."

In the heart of El Centro, you can hear a mix of laughter, the aroma of Latino food and boisterous music coming from the Chambritas food cart, owned by Fernando Reynoso, 54 (pictured below).

Reynoso is one of six food cart vendors that opened for business in spring 2017. He says that he plays the music loud to attract clientele to his menu of Mexican tacos, burritos and more.

"I am so grateful that I have been given the chance to start my own business," says Reynoso, who for 20 years worked as a waiter. "My long-term goal is to open a small restaurant where people can sit and enjoy my food."

This is a model that Ortega hopes other nonprofits will follow. Plaza Roberto Maestas is designed to help not only its residents, but also anyone who is in need of assistance. The nonprofit offers close to 50 bilingual and multicultural services, including housing, childcare, afterschool mentoring and tutoring, social services, parenting classes, and financial management lessons, among others. 

"We are proud of the work we have done," says Ortega. "This is such a beautiful model of what a beloved community should be."

For González, Plaza Roberto Maestas means her children are safe, everyone has a home and she is part of a welcoming, engaged community that is nurturing her dreams. She is attending law school to create a solid future for herself and her children.

"Getting the keys to my apartment was like a dream. We were overjoyed. It was something we needed for a long time," González says, with a big laugh. "The place is so nice that sometimes I feel underserving. I am so lucky!"

Marcherie Vázquez is assistant vice president of strategic communications for U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corporation.