Shalom House: a smart, effective program for homeless women

On December 7, along with 26 other women from Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice, I had the privilege to help serve dinner to a group of women who reside at Shalom House. Located in St. Louis, Missouri, Shalom House is a non-profit organization specializing in working with single, homeless women with mental illness and chemical dependency to help them stabilize and rebuild their lives. Shalom House provides emergency shelter for 90 days to 25 women at a time, a 24-month transitional housing program for an additional 12 women and an ongoing “aftercare” program. It will soon be expanding its services by offering permanent supportive housing.

A resident of Shalom House tells her story:

On the night we visited, we provided the women in the emergency shelter with a dinner of fresh salads, breads, and desserts and a bag of small gifts for the holidays. But the gift given to us in return was a chance to talk to these women one on one, so we could better understand the complex problem of homelessness. Some things we learned: Women who have grown up in unstable homes, who have drug or alcohol problems, learning disabilities and/or psychiatric issues, or who have been in abusive relationships are especially vulnerable to ending up on the street with no where to go. Although many of the women who come to Shalom House are poor, homelessness occurs across the economic spectrum. Psychiatric problems, substance abuse, and domestic abuse combined with difficult economic times have led middle class women, even some with Ph.D.s, to end up in Shalom House.

Although churches and other organizations generously offer shelter for the homeless, single night shelters cannot provide the stability and services that many of these women need to stabilize their lives. Typically, a woman will spend the night sleeping in her clothes on a cot and then have to be out on the street with her belonging at 6:45 AM. Because her every waking moment is dedicated to survival, she does not have the space or support to address her problems. Having no money, she may have to walk five miles in one direction for a meal at a soup kitchen, and then walk another five miles to another facility to stand in line for another meal and hope she will be there in time to make the cutoff. At the end of the day, she has to walk back to a shelter, exhausted, for another night on a cot sleeping next to strangers. She cannot care for her personal hygiene, her mental and physical health deteriorates, and she spirals downward.

Shalom House is dedicated to stopping the cycle of homelessness by giving these women a safe place to live for three months. First thing upon arrival, a woman will be fed because most women arrive very hungry. Then she is assigned a bed, which she will keep for the duration of her stay. Staff member Marcy Bursac, who gave us a tour of the facility and answered our questions, emphasized that everything at Shalom House is designed to maximize a sense of security and routine. After a meal, a new resident is given a twin bed with bedding, a colorful quilt, a storage drawer beneath the bed, a small dresser, a shelf, and a place to hang her clothes. She shares a small, open cubicle with another woman. Since many women arrive with nothing, she is given clothing, toiletries and other necessities.

Two showers and two toilets serve 25 women. That may seem overwhelming, but they work it out with half of the women showering in the morning, and half at night. With the safety of a warm bed and three meals a day, and the routine of daily schedules and chores, the women start to move out of survival mode and enter a space where they can address the cascade of problems that led them to being homeless. For example, 20 of the 25 women currently in the emergency shelter are on psychiatric medication for schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder or other psychological condition. Simply getting their medication on a regular basis goes a long way to helping them stabilize. Because drug and alcohol addiction is a pervasive problem among the residents, daily AA and NA meetings are held at the facility.

Within the first days, a new resident receives an assessment by a social worker and other staff members to determine her most critical needs. Working with her, they develop a plan for how she will use the 90 days and what will happen when she leaves the facility. If a bed is available “upstairs” where the transitional program is housed, and if she is a good candidate, she may move into that program where she can stay for up to two years. In transitional housing, she will buy and cook her own food, work and/or go to school, and save 50% of her salary for a nest egg when she “graduates” and move out on her own. Shalom House has a 97% success rate for the transitional housing program defined by the women being able to care for themselves for at least three consecutive years after leaving the program.

Those women who are not eligible for the transitional housing program are put in touch with other programs in the St. Louis area. One of the women I talked to was at the end of her 90-day stay in emergency housing. She had plans to move to the YMCA, get help with her learning disability and get her GED. She has struggled with substance abuse, but she seemed very bright and capable. She told me she had, at one time, in spite of her learning disability, been a department manager at Walmart. She attributed her success to having a great memory. According to her, Shalom House has helped her shed her negative habits and her negative outlook on herself and her life. She is looking forward to focusing on getting an education and a good job, and having a better relationship with her grown kids.

Besides providing services for homeless women, Shalom House is dedicated to educating the community about homelessness. If you would like to take a tour of the facility contact Marcy Bursac, Development Director, or 314.534.1010 ext. 14.