A Permanent Home Just in Time for the Holidays

By Lisa Watson

Winter is fast approaching and the streets of Los Angeles' Skid Row are becoming colder and harder to sleep on. To the thousands of women living here, the Downtown Women's Center (DWC) is one of the few places where they can find a hot meal, a day bed to rest, and a safe and welcoming environment regulated not by a security guard, but other women just like them.

Last year in 2011, DWC served 4,300 women, a 70 percent increase from just the year before. The unprecedented numbers of women seeking not just meals, services, but also the feeling of warmth and home, has continued to drive the mission of DWC forward during the economic recession that has left many individuals jobless and homeless.

Now more than ever, it is important to look to effective models of serving the homeless community and implement them across our urban cities most affected by this issue. Many of the women living on the streets of Downtown Los Angeles are suffering from long-term, chronic homelessness -- being homeless for five or more years. The majority of them are over 51 and facing aging and end-of-life health issues. And nearly half have faced sexual assault, domestic violence or child abuse in their lifetime -- the majority never receiving help to deal with the trauma.

The roads to homelessness are many, but chief among women is surviving domestic violence, living with mental health issues that are untreated, and lack of formal job experience that keep older women from stable jobs. They are often found on the bottom rung of the ladder and thus the most vulnerable. They are who we serve at DWC.

And while leading an organization during these hard economic times is often difficult, the rewards far outweigh any negatives. This November, DWC is opening a second residence -- what used to be the original building where founder Jill Halverson first opened the doors in 1978 to women of Skid Row.

As one of the first organizations nationwide to pioneer and model permanent supportive housing -- a successful, cost-effective combination of affordable housing with services that help people live more stable, productive lives -- the Downtown Women's Center continues to model this today.

With the opening of our San Pedro Street Home in 2010 and now the re-opening of our newly-renovated Los Angeles Street Home, we will now house a total of 119 formerly homeless women. One of those women is 50-year-old Janine Y. Betts, who one day woke up to go to work and could not stand up. In her late 40s, Betts was diagnosed with degenerative disc disorder that forced her to use a walker, lose her job and after seven months of clinging to her apartment, her savings ran out and she ended up on Skid Row.

Today, she has her own apartment in the L.A. Street Home and a strong will to succeed after being diagnosed with depression caused by the anguish of losing her mobility and her home. Although she cannot go anywhere without her walker, she is enrolled full-time at Los Angeles City College and working towards a psychology degree that she one day hopes to use to help other women in the Skid Row community the way she was helped.

Finding the Downtown Women's Center proved to be her lifeline. "The most beautiful rainbows come after the worst storms," she said of finding a new home at DWC.

Janine is just one of the 200 women that DWC serves every day. We are relentless in our mission to serve and be a real example of how permanent supportive housing is an effective model to end homelessness.

But like the women we serve, we can't do this alone. It takes a community of friends, supporters and individuals who believe that human beings, regardless of where they sleep on the ground and how they got there, deserve decent, safe and affordable housing.

My work is guided by this principle. Housing is not a privilege, it is a human right. And the end to homelessness is within our grasp.

Lisa Watson is the CEO of the Downtown Women's Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving the needs of homeless women in Los Angeles' Skid Row. Watson has been at the helm of DWC for more than a decade initiating new programs and increasing the organization's capacity to meet the dramatic rise in women's homelessness. Watson has been recognized with the KCET Local Hero Award, and recently by "LA Magazine" as a Top 50 Women Changemakers. For more information on DWC, visit www.DWCweb.org.