I’ve always been a helper, which is how I ended up here. It has made me more mindful of things that I didn’t really notice before. Like when you pull up in a parking lot and see someone has a bunch of stuff in their car and you just think, “oh they’re junky,” but no they could very well be living in their car. Homelessness has so many different faces. Sometimes, some of the ladies that have come in for interviews do not seem, looking at them you would never guess, that they’re homeless. Some of them have college degrees and keep themselves up very well but have been couch surfing for a year or sleeping in the car for the last three months, washing up at the gym or gas stations. So, it just makes you more mindful of the struggles of other people.
The more I do here the more I realize the lack of resources we have here. Gainesville is great. The support that we get for our program, I don’t know that we would necessarily get that outside of Hall County. So, that is awesome. There are a variety of challenges. Funding is always an issue for every non-profit. Without the resources, our program is limited, so we are constantly being mindful of what things cost but also maintaining our shelters and doing what we feel is most appropriate and having the appropriate level of staff. So, that can be a challenge as a director.
There are just not a lot of resources for women. We get calls daily for ladies looking for shelters – single women, seniors, moms with small children, and families of all ages. So, if we are full – which we are more so than not – there aren’t a lot of places to refer them to for possible help. There are many more programs for men than women. I just see the need for assistance, and I just think: If My Sisters Place wasn’t here, what would these people do?
We are a shelter for homeless women and mothers with children. Our goal is to help our residents overcome the obstacles that led to them becoming homeless. That can vary from person to person. The expectation is that this is a short-term program. With that in mind, if our residents are not working when they come to us, the expectation is that they are actively looking for work. That does limit our audience because not everyone is able or willing to seek employment.
While they are with us, we require that they save a percentage of their work earnings with us in a savings account here.. When they move out, they get all of that money back to help with deposits for apartments, utilities, or moving expenses. We offer the basic necessities: shelter, three meals a day, and we assist with transportation.
We have volunteers who have helped the ladies with resumes. Some ladies are not computer literate, so they need a guide to help them navigate the Internet, set up email accounts, and even fill out job applications. We have a counselor who comes in once a week to meet with the ladies just to give them an opportunity to vent. We have life skills classes, budgeting, nutrition, wellness, and self-defense. Our goal is to build our ladies up as much as we can before they move out.
Some of the things that we teach are common sense – things that still may be new to them. Sometimes you have a resident who claims she does not have any shelter and needs this help, but when you present the program she says “Actually, no I’m not interested.” That can be challenging because you’re here to help, you want to help, and not everyone wants that particular help. We know that this program isn’t for everyone because we do hold everyone accountable for their actions. We’re here to help, but we’re not here to enable. If you’re saying that you’re out looking for work, we trust that’s what you’re doing. But at the end of the day we need to see results.
Not everyone is used to having a structured lifestyle or structured home. We have a requirement that our ladies are able to pass random drug and alcohol screens. That is a challenge especially, because we do find that a lot of the ladies that have been in tough situations use drugs to cope. We try to work with them but it’s a give and take. Sometimes people have this idea that if someone is homeless, they’re less of an adult or they’re less equipped to decide things for themselves. You want to treat them like a child and say “this is what you need to do,” but that’s not helpful because it puts people on the defensive, and if they aren’t ready for help then it’s not going to benefit them. You have to learn to take a step back: let them know it’s available, but let them ultimately decide if this is something that they want to pursue.
Told by: Victoria Swaim
This story originally appeared in Facing Homelessness in Hall County, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia.