ANNENBERG BEACH HOUSE — Six years ago, Deborah Jackson left a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program with nothing going for her except a referral to St. Joseph Center in Venice.

The 50-year-old Jackson had no place to live, hadn’t worked in 15 years and her son and daughter were staying with relatives. She saw her daughter every other week, and only when she could get a weekend pass from rehab and make it to the bus.

On Wednesday, Jackson, now employed as a case manager at OPCC and getting an AA degree in women’s studies at Santa Monica College, told her success story to a group of graduates of the service that she credits with having turned her life around — Santa Monica’s Family Self Sufficiency (FSS) program.

“I want to say that it’s all been easy, but it hasn’t been,” Jackson said in an interview Friday.

Jackson was one of 12 individuals graduating from the FSS program at a ceremony at the Annenberg Beach House this week.

FSS, a mandated but unfunded program of the federal Housing and Urban Development department, targets people in subsidized housing — called Section 8 — to help them get a job and begin accruing savings in a tax-free escrow account, which the program partially matches.

Participants receive access to their escrow account when they graduate.

Wednesday’s graduates had saved up over $150,000 between them through the program.

The program currently serves 50 Santa Monica families and 77 low-income households that are served with FSS funding, according to Paul Rubenstein, development director at the St. Joseph Center.

The center has provided case management services for City Hall since 1997, and helped 160 households through FSS.

“It’s a unique program in that it looks at the individual and assesses what the person needs to break through to employment,” said coordinator Jody Gilbert.

Once enrolled, a counselor will help his or her charge to narrow down what that person wants to do, and what barriers stand between them and success.

When Jackson got involved with FSS, she was “hostile, bitter and angry.” She’d just been fired from a job at the Union Rescue Mission, and she felt that she was out of options.

“My case manager didn’t put up with my nonsense,” Jackson said. “She made me feel worthwhile because she listened.”

Jackson became a certified alcohol and drug addiction counselor, and began work at OPCC, helping people who find themselves caught in a position that she recognizes all too well.

She’s now 21 units away from graduating SMC with her AA degree, and plans on acquiring a BA in African American studies at Antioch College.

Her two children moved into the Santa Monica apartment in which she lives, and although their lives are busy — her son is attending culinary school and her daughter now touring colleges — they always manage to sit down every Sunday for a family breakfast, church and dinner.

“It’s given us stability in our lives, and enabled me to do more since I was stable and didn’t have to worry about food and where I was going to lay my head,” Jackson said. “It gave me stability and made me want to become a productive member of society.”

There are no typical stories for people who take part in this program, said Julie Lansing, Santa Monica’s Housing Authority administrator.

“People think that they’re lazy, or they’re criminals and don’t want to work,” Lansing said. “These are very motivated families that need some support. They need someone to help them understand how to access these services.”

The economic downturn sent clients to FSS that many counselors wouldn’t have expected — people with master’s degrees and professionals who lost jobs and needed help.

The program provides budgeting and money management classes. It helps people overcome individual hurdles, which can range from lacking education to needing one nice set of clothes to go to a job interview.

For Jackson, it was the turning point that sent her on a better path.

“I just really like to thank all the FSS staff, and the city of Santa Monica and St. Joseph Center for allowing me to have a chance to become a productive member of society, and giving someone like me a place to stay,” Jackson said. “For believing in me and dealing with me. They worked with me and helped me overcome a lot of barriers that I had.”

ashley@smdp.com