For homeless women, an alternative to couch-surfing

Services like Jubilee Women's Center, a transitional-housing and training nonprofit, are seeing increasing numbers of homeless single women. But because they tend to stay off the streets, it's not easy to find them and reach out.
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Susan Fox, executive director of Jubilee Women's Center in Seattle.

Services like Jubilee Women's Center, a transitional-housing and training nonprofit, are seeing increasing numbers of homeless single women. But because they tend to stay off the streets, it's not easy to find them and reach out.

Editor's note: Crosscut contributor Lisa Albers recently spoke with Susan Fox, executive director of Jubilee Women's Center in Seattle — a transitional housing organization whose mission is to provide a safe and supportive place for women to live and an opportunity for them to learn while becoming self-reliant in housing and employment.

Lisa Albers: According to Jubilee's press material, since 1998, the incidence of single adult women living on the streets of Seattle has increased 211 percent. What do you think is behind the statistic? What explains the tragic increase?

Susan Fox: At Jubilee, we're encountering women whose average age is 44. They are not financially prepared for a crisis, whether that crisis is physical or mental, and once their disability runs out, they have no backup, no support systems. Sometimes, it's as simple as their family and friends just can't help them. I think we will see an increase in the number of single women who are homeless when the boomer generation hits retirement. Women are going to end up working past retirement age, and if they don't have the skills set to meet the demands of the market, they won't be able to support themselves.

Lisa Albers: How old is your oldest resident?

Susan Fox: Sixty-two. She eventually moved into senior housing. We help women who are between the ages of 21-62. At 63, women are eligible for senior housing. Sixty percent of our women have children, but they are grown and older or are in foster care or adopted out. We sometimes help women get their children back from foster care. We have one gal in college who used to visit her mother living in Jubilee. After her mother became independent, the daughter returned to Jubilee as a volunteer.

Lisa Albers: How else do you help the women who live here?

Susan Fox: We sometimes help them through the legal and social service systems to make sure they know these women are working toward something. One woman from an upper-middle-class background whose husband was an alcoholic and turned physically violent had to leave her kids with her mother when she went into hiding. But her mother turned the children over to social services, and the woman had to fight to get them back. We helped her through that process.

Lisa Albers: Here's another sobering stat: A worker must earn $14.02 per hour to afford the average rent of $729 for a one-bedroom apartment in King County. Connect this to the dramatic increase in homelessness among single women for me. What's happening?

Susan Fox: There have been a number of articles in the papers recently on Market Rate Rent. If you're a single woman supporting yourself, and you make $12 an hour, you can't afford to live in Seattle. Say that's where your job is located, and you can't afford to live close to where you work, and you don't have a car for transportation. If there's no money in the bank, if you're living paycheck to paycheck, and something happens, you could end up homeless. With most of our women, there is the issue of an event — disability, alcoholism, healing from whatever they're dealing with — and they can't handle that and somehow come up with $2,500-$3,500 for first and last month's rent.

Lisa Albers: I talked to someone recently who said that in Italy, there is no homeless problem because families take care of troubled members. Can you comment on that? Have you observed a difference between U.S. homelessness and that of other industrialized countries?

Susan Fox: Some cultures are more likely to have large numbers of family members living together. Sometimes, this isn't possible due to family dynamics. What if they aren't talking to each other? If your mother is living in HUD housing, you can't live with her even if you want to; you're legally prevented from it.

Lisa Albers: I note, too, that getting an accurate count of women on the streets is difficult. Can you explain why?

Susan Fox: If you're a woman on the street, you don't want to be hanging around downtown by yourself when the street life happens. Women do a better job of hiding in the outdoors or couch-surfing. They stay with friends, or with boyfriends they really want to leave. I wish I could do a survey to figure out how to reach them. We plan to advertise by putting articles in the newspaper. Many women come to us through word-of-mouth.

Lisa Albers: Tell me what Jubilee does to help women. You have an amazing success rate — 85 percent move into permanent housing. How does your program work? What do you provide women that they can't get elsewhere?

Susan Fox: We're not a holding place for people. There is a lot of activity to get them back into self-sufficient lifestyles. Part of the success is nebulous; it's hard to document. We will do a research study about the positive attitude we take with our women. Shame is such a problem; many women feel shame during recovery from alcoholism and about their homelessness. When women come to our door, we treat them like queens. We ask them if they want coffee and tea that first day. We show respect for their courage, what they've gone through to get to this point. We try to counteract the shame, trauma, and stigma. We respect the dignity of their lives right where they are.

Lisa Albers: How do you help them rejoin the workforce?

Susan Fox: We help them find their gifts and talents. Some have gone into work in fields such as medical records and love their jobs. We help them find scholarships to go to college. We help them get education, which is a huge breaker of the disparity between rich and poor. Our Learning and Technology Center is state-of-the-art, and we administer exams for Microsoft Office Products so they can become proficient in computer skills.

Lisa Albers: What if their problems are so overwhelming, they can't go to work or class?

Susan Fox: One of the criteria we have is if you have a serious mental health issue, we can't take you. There are other services for that, such as Compass Cascade, a program we work with. But say you're on medication, you've stabilized; we can help you. If you have a mental health condition, you have to be taking your medication in order to qualify for Jubilee. If you have a drug or alcohol problem, you have to be six months' sober before you come in.

Lisa Albers: You typically allow women to stay at Jubilee for two years. Is that enough time?

Susan Fox: When the women come in and know they have two years, they're used to being on someone's couch or in a shelter for no more than 30 days, so two years sounds like a long time. We don't kick them out after two years, and we don't hold them back if they're ready. The average length of stay is one year. They want to live independently; they want to be living like they were before they went into crisis. Most can't wait to get out and get their own apartment! But they have to heal physically and mentally. It's hard to go from crises to fully functioning overnight.

Lisa Albers: What role does domestic violence play in Jubilee's work? Do you struggle to protect women from their abusers?

Susan Fox: We're not a safe house; we're not an underground facility. We're in the phone book and on the Internet. Residents with that background have to be careful that they're not being actively pursued because we don't want to put the house in jeopardy. We send these women to a safe house first. Once they are on a good track and they come to us, we help them find ways to avoid abuse in the future. There will always be people in the world who will abuse you. The question is, how are you going to cope with the situation? How are you going to be different? There is a fine line between blaming the victim versus getting the resources so that you don't get into this situation again. There are warning signs for controlling men. You take responsibility by keeping your eyes and ears open. We give them the tools to keep from becoming a victim again.


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