By Armand Echeverry
Homelessness plagues the streets and sidewalks of New York City. These poverty-stricken people reside on the grimy pavement with scant resources to utilize and nobody to turn to. Many of them are women.
According to the Coalition for Homeless, the number of single women in municipal shelters has doubled from about 2,000 ten years ago to 4,000 as of October, 2015. Among the many factors which contribute to this rise are domestic violence, sexual and physical abuse, acute health problems, chronic substance abuse, financial exploitation and past trauma.
The Bowery Mission is a social services and faith-based organization with the intent of assuaging the fear and physiological ailments of homeless women. They’ve allocated $17.5 million towards the men’s, women’s, and children’s programs.
Institutional Giving Coordinator Hannah Vanbiber is responsible for ascertaining the effectiveness of staff members as well as the number of proposals sent out to different companies that can subsidize the organization in its efforts to end homelessness. There are over 30,000 individual and corporate donors that bankroll the organization.
“The women who enter our programs are homeless and generally seeking help in any of the following areas job help and training, addiction recovery, trauma recovery, counseling, and secure housing,” said Vanbiber. “We offer aid in all of these areas.” The majority of women are between the ages of 30 and 55. Half of them have a history of substance abuse and almost all have been abused physically, sexually or emotionally.
They take a holistic approach to helping women while maintaining a strong belief in God. This is done through a spiritual medium like the Bible and provides a cathartic release for many of the women.
“A grounding in some form of faith or spirituality is often crucial to instilling hope and commitment to a healthy and whole life,” said Vanbiber. “Most of the women who come to us consider some form of faith to be a central part of their lives.”
The success of their program for women who graduate is measured upon a stable income, a place to live, commitment to being clean and sober, establishing healthy relationships, becoming spiritually grounded and having a plan for the future. This model treats recovery as a holistic process involving all the different facets of the person.
While their programs are successful, the Mission is implementing a new system, called the Gateway Program, which mitigates the pain women experience.
“A Gateway program protects both the new women seeking our program and the women already enrolled in the full 12-15 months. It creates a gentler transition that allows women to make more informed decisions about what they want – and creates a higher level of investment once they enter the program,” said Vanbiber.
Not all women are ready to participate in the program, hence they’re allowed 30 days to decide whether or not they want to commit to the entire 12 to 15 month program.
“The women are estranged from their spouses, partners, children and extended family,” said Vanbiber. “Most are between the ages of 30 and 55 and have lost their sense of dignity and self-worth along the way, making it extremely difficult to recover alone.”
Once women are involved in the Mission’s program they are required to share rooms, eat meals together, participate in counseling as well as celebrate their birthdays and new jobs, eliciting a cohesive group of love and respect.
“After six months, we work with the women to secure appropriate employment and housing. They continue living at The Bowery Mission until they are stable in both areas. Employed women who have completed all their counseling have the opportunity to live for an additional 6-12 months in one of our transitional apartments at the Women’s Center in Harlem,” she added.
Dominique is a Haitian born participant in the Bowery’s program who asked that her last name not be used. She has lead a poignant life, formerly working as a full time medical administrator whose husband was an owner of a record company. In a short period of time, Dominique’s husband and mother died, an injury prevented her from working and her house went into foreclosure.
“I was calling and calling different organizations, trying to find somewhere to go. Finally I called the Bowery Mission and told her that nobody wanted me and she said, ‘We want you’,” said Dominique.
Women In Need is another homeless organization established in 1983, originally exclusive to women but today the organization caters to every demographic. According to a recent report, as of this year they provide programs, service and housing to over 4,500 homeless people each night.
Office Manager of Women In Need’s headquarters Ruthanne Cassara is an indefatigable humanist, working diligently to end homelessness.
“A lot of them do suffer from domestic violence and a lot of them are not on drugs because they come into a day clinic and we provide a shelter for them,” said Cassara.
The goal of this organization is to teach women how to use the advice and comfort they receive in order to become successful in the real world. Unfortunately, not every drifter can call a shelter their home, since there’s a catch.
The Department of Homeless Services requires those seeking shelter to undergo a selective process of interview, where they provide temporary housing to those who really need it.
“They ask for documentation and they go through an interview process: Where did you live? How did you become homeless? And where you were sleeping?” said Cassara.
“Plus many couples are divorced and generally women are left to care for the child on their own, so when you have to seek jobs, it becomes difficult to find out how your child will be taken care of,” she added.
Cassara stated another factor of women’s homelessness stems from the lopsided wages between men and women in the workplace.
In 2012, women earned roughly 84 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts, according to a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center.
The official website of New York City says Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his ten year capital strategy of allocating $83.8 billion to provide 200,000 affordable housing units for low income families. Cassara feels de Blasio’s budget plan is frivolous and a cycle for survival.
“It’s a bunch of bullshit because in reality people have different types of incomes you have to earn below and above a salary line to become eligible. Then, there’s tax breaks, but after they expire, whoever is living in the affordable housing unit is going to get kicked out onto the streets again,” said Cassara.
She added that it’s ultimately up to women to take initiative and transcend themselves into achieving an occupation they might have never thought they could have.
“Through it all, it’s a real eye opener to see the difference these homeless organizations make in women and children,” said Cassara. “Like they say, you can bring the horse to the water but you can’t make her drink.”