The Way to Win: Working to Solve the Homeless Problem

Currently, there are 53,000 homeless people in New York City. Twenty-two thousand of them are children. That's the highest number since the Great Depression. This week, I was fortunate enough to attend an event celebrating the efforts of Women In Need (WIN), a non-profit that houses and relocates homeless families in New York City.

The Way to Win Dinner Gala is the organization's annual fundraiser. In its 18th year, this event was their biggest ever, raising over $3.4 million. The evening introduced me to a young woman who shared her journey from homelessness to a better life for her and her four children. I was equally inspired by a WIN child who shared his winning poem. It was written in a workshop taught by an author who had previously lived in a WIN shelter with her mom.

WIN was founded about 32 years ago as a response to the homeless issue that had just emerged into the public view. It started as a group of volunteer women who were concerned about homeless children, said Bonnie Stone, President and CEO of WIN. From its very tiny beginnings, it has grown to be a major NYC institution with thousands of families living under their roof. Earlier this week, she said the shelter housed 3,400 people, 2,000 of them children.

Safe, Clean Housing to Break the Homeless Cycle

Shed the popular image of a homeless person being a mentally ill man or woman on the street. While you're at it, shed the popular image of a shelter as a huge gymnasium with rows of beds and chaos. A WIN shelter is orderly and quiet, with every family having their own private unit with beds, kitchen, bathroom, chairs and a little bit of storage space.

"Like a tiny apartment," said Stone. "It's locked, its private, it's safe, it's clean, and it's not in the image that most people have."

The people find their way to WIN through the New York City Department of Homeless Services. They are homeless due to many, varied circumstances.

"We have people that have been evicted from their apartment. We have women that are running away from domestic violence," Stone said. "Some are depressed women whose lives just fall apart and they can't provide, and we have very young teenage moms that come out of the foster care system and don't really have a plan, but they have a child."

The city has an obligation to house every single homeless person (in fact, Stone tells me it's the only city in the country that does.) They do that through WIN and other organizations. The WIN difference: "We then go beyond that and we offer all these other services so the families have a shot at filling in the deficiencies that they have," Stone explained. "We start right away with the notion that we will return them to the community."

The average length of stay is over a year. The intense programs for the people in WIN shelters help them transform their lives. The first step is help looking for permanent housing, but depending on circumstances, counselors may help with a job search, parenting skills, or budgeting.

Message About Homeless

Homelessness is nothing to be afraid of, said Stone. And it's a cause you should not be afraid to help. Join organizations like WIN and donate money, time and effort because it's something that can be turned around. If you're interested in WIN, see their website for information on how to donate or volunteer.

They don't have a formal volunteer program. Stone says they try to fit each volunteer with a task that works for them and for the organization. For instance, professionals such as architects and lawyers volunteer their services; some people read to children, some want to teach people how to cook, teach computer skills, or host parties for birthdays and holidays at the shelters.

Homelessness isn't unique to New York City, but things can change. Find out where, and how, you can help in your own town.