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Into the arms of God

"Into the arms of God" Continued...

For many residents, ending homelessness takes more than six months. Macklin said the residents stay as long as they need to but must keep progressing. Resident Eric Freeman, 48, spent 30 years living on the streets and is now in his third month in the Discipleship Institute. He battled substance abuse, lost connection with his family, and lacked self-confidence. He has now found a new way of living: "Man was trying to change me, but now God has."

Less than a mile to the northeast, the Bowery Mission runs a city-funded program. When former Mayor David Dinkins asked for more homeless shelters in 1990, the Bowery Mission responded and opened the Transitional Center on Avenue D in 1992. The staff members work to instill Christian values in a place reliant on city funding that restricts evangelism.

This center is across the street from housing projects built in the 1960s that house many residents on welfare. Unemployment and high crime plague the neighborhood. Hector Pabon, the center's associate director, said many residents lack hope to leave the area. Upon entering the center, men receive a dorm room and key-personal space, a novelty for homeless men. A resident signs a contract and, with the help of a counselor, develops an individual living plan that changes every month.

The nine-month program has three phases. For the first 30 days, residents work at the center and attend meetings while staff members get to know them. In Phase Two, months two and three, residents look for jobs and attend fewer meetings. In the last phase, residents stay employed, save 75 percent of their income, and find housing. Many of the staff members, including all four counselors, are Christians. They build relationships with the residents and create opportunities to evangelize outside of the official program.

New York City has made recent internal changes that allow the center to move out unproductive residents who are "playing the system," Pabon said. Such residents, used to the streets, want a bed and a warm breakfast but have no intention of changing their lives. When a resident must be transferred to a different shelter, Pabon said, counselors must "let go" and pray the resident will realize in some other way his need for Christ.

The center has both failures and success stories. Pabon speaks of a taciturn man named Anthony who came to the shelter last year and, helped by counseling, came to profess faith in Christ. He found a job and lined up an apartment-which he almost lost after a fight-but with the help of Pabon he moved in and began a new life.

Almost 70 blocks north of the Transitional Center, the Bowery Mission Women's Center at Heartsease House is a home for 17 women in the process of transforming their lives. The 19th-century brownstone blends in with the surrounding homes. No sign marks the Women's Center, but behind the red doors are stories of struggle, hardship, and grace.

Melissa Alcorn lived a life of drugs, alcohol, and abuse. Fourteen years ago she became a Christian, she said, and God showed her a glimpse of her future: working with those in need. After the Women's Center opened in 2005, Alcorn came to work there and became director.

The center rents the building from a Mennonite organization for $1 a year and has refurbished it into a 10-bedroom home with warm colors, comfortable couches, and a garden filled with flowers and tomato plants. Spiral staircases guide residents through the home: They move from the dining room, up to a chapel and career center, and through two floors of bedrooms to a living room where meetings are held.

Most of the women come from a substance- and domestic-abuse background: When they walk through the red doors they enter Phase One of the program, which helps the women to become acclimated to living in a community and obeying rules. That's their biggest obstacle, Alcorn said.

The Women's Center program helps the women with their spiritual, emotional, and economic life. Each woman must attend chapel, memorize scripture, and attend meetings. The center offers counseling and budgeting, computer, and resumé training to help the women enter the business world.

When the women enter Phase Two, they begin seeking employment and save 75 percent of their income. They have to demonstrate character through telling the truth, participating in the community, and respecting others. The seven staff members work together to monitor the women's progress.

Belieda Pringle, 51, came to New York from Virginia after using drugs and turning her back on God. "In Virginia, my life wasn't like it should have been. Now I have a relationship with God and I see things differently."

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