By Jessica Portner
On Skid Row, the downtown hub of the homeless population in Los Angeles, transients ask passersby for change, slump against concrete buildings, and mumble obscenities at bus stops. The Downtown Women’s Center’s beautiful new building, sitting in the middle of the mayhem, is a standout. The DWC’s Day Center serves hundreds of homeless women in its facilities every day and 71 lucky ones live in permanent residences, or efficiency apartments.
The Center is a particular refuge for older homeless women who have lived in shelters, with family or on the streets for longer stretches of time. Of the 50,000 homeless people in LA County, 30 percent are women, and that number is increasing. About 47 percent of the women at the DWC are 51 years or older, the age that the AARP designates as senior citizen.
Women like Francine Andrade have struggled for years to find a home.
“To me, this is paradise,” said Andrade, 61, a teen runaway and abuse victim who slept on the cement sidewalk in Hollywood for two years. “Finally, at last, I don’t have to keep moving, not knowing where I am going to be.”
Women often become vulnerable to homelessness if they have lost a spouse who was primary source of income for the family. They may not be easily employable because they have little experience in the workforce. Some older women, however, chose to be homeless and give up rent so their child could finish college or they could help support their grandchildren with their Social Security check.
“The philosophy is to create a sense of home,” said Patrick Shandrick, the Center’s Director of Communications and Public Education. “The first thing when you become homeless is you lose your dignity and sense of self worth, so we really try to provide comfort.”
The Center was the first organization in the nation to provide permanent supportive housing for women. Founder Jill Halverson started a center in 1978 following the closure of psychiatric hospitals statewide in the early 1970s, which led to a ballooning of the homeless populations. At the time, homeless women in the city had few options because shelters were only accessible to men. Halverson withdrew her life savings, bought the furniture and opened the center that served hot, healthy meals to women and offered a respite from a life on the streets.
The Center’s newly renovated facility was funded by a variety of public and private sources, including $8 million from the California Department of Community Development, $3.5 million from the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency and $7 million from foundations.
Stepping from the grimy street on Skid Row into the Center’s clean, airy space is a dramatic shift in ambiance. There’s a nicely decorated reception area, an open cafeteria, and couches in a flower-filled waiting area as quaint as a nice hotel’s. Design firms have decorated the spaces for free in the building, which is split between the quiet residential apartments and the bustling day center. There’s a Women’s Health Center that offers medical treatment, mental health and case management services for residents. Women receive gynecological health care, family planning and mammograms. The Center paired up with a clinic to provide physicians and nurse practitioners that conduct blood pressure monitoring, STD and HIV testing, cancer screenings, and diabetes tests.
There’s an impressive roster of physical and mental wellness activities that would rival some holistic health clinic. The women can take exercise stress reduction workshops and meditation. A nutritional specialist conducts cooking classes and prepares well-balanced meals for about 150 women who eat in the cheery cafeteria daily. They are introduced to healthy foods not generally served in shelters or soup kitchens, like quinoa, kale and couscous.
A team of mental health specialists at the Center offers psychological and psychiatric services for the women in the center, most of whom have experienced abuse, been victimized, or have a mental illness.
Jennifer Ma-Pham, the Director of Clinical Health Services, said the staff is attentive to how complicated diagnoses can be for older patients. Older residents go through the same issues any older person living in independently or in a nursing home might experience. They may need assistance with more intensive things like personal hygiene and dressing. Because the older residents are often less mobile, the staff always bring a plate of food at mealtime to women who can’t easily leave their room.
“People brush off that an older client forgets things and might not screen for dementia or Alzheimer’s disease,” she said. “They also might brush off the fact that they might be going though depression.”
Julia Perry, 65, a resident of the center, feels very well taken care of and keeps up with all her various annual screenings. For years, Perry supported herself and her sons by working as a maid, for All State Insurance Company, and as a nurse’s assistant. She traveled back and forth from Mississippi and California living with family, friends, and sometimes in rescue missions and hotels.
“This is wonderful,” Perry said. “I love the fact that it’s affordable and safe.” In the single room occupancy hotel, she said, “you never knew who could be entering the building while you are sleeping.” To stay at the Center, residents contribute 30 percent of the income they receive from Social Security. The average length of stay at the center is 13 years, but they can live there as long as they like.
Andrade, sitting on her cozy quilt in her own efficiency apartment, said it’s definitely worth it. “I got my kitchen and got my microwave and I got a real bed,” she said. “I never I had a place I could call home.”