PORTLAND – Will I ever find a home? Is there any way to end homelessness? This month marked the first anniversary of an event that answered those questions with a resounding "Yes!"
It was the anniversary of the day Preble Street welcomed homeless women home for good to Florence House, the comprehensive woman’s center on Valley Street.
On that day, women who had all but given up the dream of a home signed leases, set up housekeeping, and began a new life.
We celebrated with Gail Veilleux, who said, "It was cold out there in the woods. Florence House got me off the streets. Now I can get ahead. Learn something."
We celebrated as another woman balanced her grocery bags and fished for the keys to the first apartment she’s had in 11 years.
Struggling throughout her life with diabetes and mental health problems and homeless after leaving a violent husband, she was assaulted in the streets. To escape her pain she became a victim of her own drug abuse.
At her lowest point, she took back her life, sought treatment at Mercy Recovery Center, and came to Florence House. Today she is home — sober and healthy and part of a supportive community.
More than 50 percent of the women at Florence House have experienced domestic abuse, suffer from chronic health problems, and are at great risk of beatings, rape and trauma while homeless.
Those 18 to 44 years old are 10 times more likely to die than housed women, because of poor living conditions, substance abuse, mental illness and social isolation.
On one of the handmade wall tiles that commemorate their troubled lives, a woman wrote that it’s like being stuck in a black bottomless pit; like being dead inside.
Each woman arrives at Florence House with a heartrending story of misfortune, abuse, illness, mistakes, helplessness. Each with a broken heart. Each with a dream of home.
We have heard their stories. We have seen the terrible, painful and sometimes overwhelming reality.
We have said homelessness is not OK. And Florence House is a solution: permanent and emergency housing for chronically homeless women.
None of the 25 women who moved into apartments at Florence House when it opened have returned to shelters.
The 150 women who needed the emergency shelter at Florence House have since found permanent affordable housing.
Hundreds have been connected with community resources for mental health, substance abuse treatment, employment and health care.
They are working to develop life skills, take courses, find jobs and reconnect with their families.
Many are involved in the community, volunteer for neighborhood clean-ups or participate in peer advocacy with Homeless Voices for Justice at Preble Street.
As we celebrated how coming together at Florence House helped women feel safe and empowered them to grow and improve their lives, we also celebrated how it has strengthened the community.
Avesta Housing and Preble Street turned an unkempt, untended urban lot into urgently needed housing to support the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
The neighborhood gained an aesthetically pleasing, award-winning residential property with a responsible landlord, 24-hour professional staff, a management plan and a solid partnership with the police department.
New residents with a sense of ownership in the community have taken a keen interest in being good neighbors. And a program that opens doors of hope for homeless women has reduced the strain on municipal and emergency services.
Medcu calls and emergency room visits have plunged because many who used emergency services every month while homeless stop when they have supportive housing.
At Florence House hundreds of women have taken hold of opportunities that will continue to allow them to make lasting positive change in their lives and their neighborhood.
As U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan said when Florence House opened, "Our challenge is to house everyone — and Florence House is showing us how we can."
Gloria Woody, an attractive middle-aged woman staying at the shelter who is a breast cancer survivor and is extra careful about eating healthfully, smiled as she sat in the bright dining room for a few minutes to join the anniversary party.
As she wrapped her remaining lunch in a napkin and rushed off to keep an appointment to look at an apartment, she said, "I don’t know what I would’ve done without Florence House. It’s amazing!"