Claudette Gill has become a local success story for a federal self-sufficiency initiative aimed at helping people change their lives so they won't need government support.

In 2009, during the recession, she started receiving federal rent-subsidy vouchers after losing a job. Today, she owns a home and a growing business.

"There were times when I wanted to give up, but I just couldn't," said Gill, a 45-year-old North Charleston resident and mother of four.

Families struggling to pay their bills can wait years to get a federal rent-subsidy voucher, commonly known as Section 8, but the first thing Gill did when she became eligible was make plans to get off the assistance program.

She had some advantages from the start, such as job skills, but her former caseworker said Gill's focus and determination were admirable.

"I saved money," Gill said. "I ate Vienna sausages and Oodles of Noodles for a whole year. I just saved, saved, saved."

A truck driver by trade, Gill used her savings to buy a used Peterbilt truck when a man who was moving away offered to sell his for $3,200. That led to steady work as a long-haul trucker, and started Gill on the path toward her own company.

"I used to run from Charleston to Eastport, Maine," said Gill, who tells harrowing stories about piloting a tanker-truck loaded with glue down icy mountain roads.

Her first cab, with "Real Women Drive Trucks" written on the side, sits in her storage lot today, used for parts, Gill now owns six trucks, and instead of driving them she employs drivers and works from a home office running the business.

The Family Self Sufficiency program, helped her reach her goals, while rent subsidies helped her back on her feet financially. Baby steps, like establishing a savings account, led to larger things for Gill, including obtaining a truck broker's license.

"She's very focused," said Ginean Mazyck, the Family Self Sufficiency coordinator at the Charleston County Housing Authority. "She was one of the few who signed up (for the program) right away."

"Lots of the people who come to me have issues to deal with - domestic violence, children with problems, illness - that keep them from being focused," said Mazyck, who works with up to 70 clients in the program at a time. "I am a single parent with three kids, who needed help at one point in my life, so I understand."

The Family Self Sufficiency program is aimed at getting people off the Housing Choice Voucher rent subsidy program, mostly known as Section 8. The initiative has been around since 1990, but participation is voluntary, and funding for the program managers who serve as caseworkers is limited.

The Charleston, North Charleston, and Charleston County housing authorities each have one FSS coordinator, enough to serve less than 5 percent of voucher recipients.

How it works

Housing Choice vouchers help lower-income families pay rent at privately-owned apartments. Voucher recipients pay 30 percent of their income toward rent and utilities, and the federal government pays the rest, up to limits based on regional rent standards.

If a client's income increases, they pay more of the rent.

In the Family Self Sufficiency program, participants set goals and get help to meet them. If their income increases, the resulting increase in their share of the rent is set aside in an escrow account, and if they meet their goals and leave the voucher program, they get that escrowed money.

In Gill's case, her escrowed funds amounted to $3,100. And that money helped her buy the house she had been renting, a modest half-duplex in North Charleston.

"That money went toward the closing on my house," said Gill, who became a homeowner in January.

She received rent subsidies from 2009 into 2013, when she graduated from the self sufficiency program.

Gill's new goal is to pay off her mortgage in just five years.

Most don't succeed

At the Housing Authority of the city of Charleston, CEO Don Cameron said the program officially has 39 slots for Family Self Sufficiency participants, but there are about 50 families now involved.

"When you see somebody come out the other end, it's all worthwhile," Cameron said. "The hope, which is not always realized, is that they will not need any sort of government support."

Families in the self sufficiency program get five years, and sometimes as much as seven, to meet their goals.

Cameron said that, typically, only a quarter to a third of participants succeed.

"You can't cure credit problems, or the lack of job skills, overnight," he said. "It's very challenging."

Gill had advantages, including a good credit history, job skills and an employment history, but she said determination was the real key.

"You have to be determined to rise above your station," she said.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552