Cover Story

Into the arms of God

"Into the arms of God" Continued...

When the women enter Phase Three, they begin to prepare for graduation. It's hard; since September 2005 nine out of 98 women have graduated from the program and six have left exhibiting PLOs.

"The staff tries to help you as much as they can. While you are here you should excel because you can get whatever you need: schooling, GED, tutoring. You just have to be willing to take advantage of it," Pringle said.

Alcorn said she hopes the women will not just conform to the program and its expectations, but that their lives and hearts will transform. She said there is a tension between "holding people accountable in truth but also having grace."

Resident LaVerna Johnson, 57, is gaining confidence by living at the center. A native New Yorker, Johnson was living in Florida, unemployed, and in "bondage to fear." She said God directed her back to the city and, after calling churches, she found the Women's Center. Johnson said she has started writing poems again, always has her notebook on hand, and is teaching herself to play the piano, something she always wanted to do. She spoke of finding her confidence and power in Christ: "I always knew God, but I found myself here." -Julie Ryan

What Christians do: Part 3

Hebron, a short-term homeless shelter for single women, seems out of place in affluent Loudoun County, Va., west of Washington, D.C. Modest single-family homes there now cost over $500,000; even tiny apartments rent for $1,000 per month. "This is one county that has so much money and is thriving so much, it's hard to believe we have this homeless problem," said Jayda Roberts of the Good Shepherd Alliance, a Christian organization that has worked with homeless individuals since 1983.

Single women and their children can stay for up to 89 days at Hebron while they work, save, and try to get back on their feet. Hebron's porch smells heavily of cigarettes, but a sign on the front door reads, "Through these doors walk the greatest residents in the world."

One young resident, Michael, seemed shy at first, but it only lasted five minutes. "Are you new?" the 7-year-old asked a visitor with a hopeful grin. "I'm moving tomorrow," Michael announced later as he demonstrated a Star Wars video game his grandmother bought him. But he's not excited about the move. "I'm gonna miss people." His face fell a little, but his eyes never left the game screen. "This is the fourth shelter I've been in," he exclaimed. "[At] the last one they were just mean."

Michael and his mother Keri were moving to grandma's house, a four-hour drive away. "I'm not worried about her," Grace Magor, the 71-year-old live-in monitor at Hebron, said about Keri: "Her mother is there to pitch in and can help her if she needs." But Keri is unusual; many have been rejected by their families.

This past summer a pregnant mother, 21-year-old Stephanie, was working 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. shifts, then coming home to Hebron and cooking dinner for herself and her 2-year-old daughter, who pranced into the kitchen in a pink nightgown and tiny strap sandals, a Barbie DVD in hand. The girl's dark pixie-curly hair matches Stephanie's, but her dark complexion comes from her father, who Stephanie followed to Loudoun Country from her home in Rhode Island. He is no longer around.

For Stephanie and other single, expectant women, a newborn baby could mean months of not working and falling further behind. Half of Stephanie's paycheck already was going to daycare.

But in August Stephanie moved into another home GSA had just completed renovating, a small one in Purcellville, Va., called Mary's House of Hope. It is designed to house three single pregnant moms or single moms with newborn babies for two years or more. These women must have completed several of GSA's program steps at Hebron before moving to Mary's House.

Volunteers participated in gutting and remodeling the 100-year-old abandoned house, rented from the town of Purcellville for $1 a year. "All I had to say was 'homeless, pregnant, unwed women,' and I had a number of people ready to help," said Mike Emerson, the pastor in charge of outreach ministry at Cornerstone Chapel in Leesburg.

It's what Christians do. -Cherise Ryan

Cherise is a journalism major at Patrick Henry College.

Removing barriers

Secular organization fills niche in homeless shelter market

By Joshua King

A frail man with a scraggly beard sat on the side of Avenue C in Manhattan's East Village. He slumped back in his rickety wheelchair with his belongings in a plastic bag strapped to one handle. He raised one hand to shade his brow from the afternoon sun. With the other he held out a plastic cup to collect coins and cash from the people passing by. Dressed in a gray sweatshirt and ragged jeans, he was just another homeless man.

But unlike most of New York's homeless individuals, this man cannot walk. In a city with more than 35,000 homeless people, some who are able-bodied turn away from the help they need, but others with disabilities can't find it. According to the Urban Institute's Martha Burt, "No one cares. No one wants to pay for it."

Some disabled receive help from Christian organizations or end up in nursing homes. Others end up in one of the 221 federally funded homeless city shelters in New York. Yet only one is exclusively devoted to those with physical disabilities.

The Barrier Free Living transitional shelter is a reminder of "common grace" good works. Barrier Free, with a mix of staffers and volunteers from different beliefs, offers its residents home-care services-a need that goes unmet at many other shelters.

Barrier Free's four-story complex originally served as a nursing home, so its hallways, doorways, dorm-style rooms, and showers already are big enough for those in wheelchairs to move about freely. All the shelves are low enough for someone in a wheelchair to reach. Each corridor has a railing built into the wall. The front entrance has a ramp.

Barrier Free began in 1983 as an alternative to nursing homes. CEO Paul Feuerstein said before his organization came along, a disabled homeless person never progressed toward independence because of a "constant, vicious cycle" of going from hospital care to the inadequate care of a traditional homeless shelter: "Because they didn't have the appropriate supports, they were spending six months of the year in a hospital bed and six months of the year in a shelter."

The Barrier Free transitional shelter has 48 beds-half for men, half for women-and each year serves over 200 individuals with a variety of disabilities, including quadriplegics and those with multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, severe arthritis, and blindness. Shelter director Cathy Gormley said many homeless people spend time on a waiting list. Six triage-style assessment shelters in the city contact Barrier Free when they come across homeless people with severe physical disabilities; a mobile outreach team interviews those individuals and sometimes brings them in.

Gormley wants residents to learn to perform daily activities on their own-dressing, showering, brushing teeth, and other "basic things most people take for granted." A psychiatric consultant visits the shelter every month to meet with the residents. Every three months, the shelter hires at least three occupational therapy students from local universities to train residents in basic life skills, such as managing an appropriate diet, budgeting on a fixed income, and staying out of debt. The shelter offers classes and workshops for those with disabilities getting ready to move out and live independently.

Barrier Free receives all of its funding from the government, but residents have held Bible studies and hosted religious speakers. It is those living at the shelter who initiate such activities.

Roberta Green Ahmanson, Julie Ryan and Cherise Ryan
Roberta Green Ahmanson, Julie Ryan and Cherise Ryan

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