Five minutes later, I was allowed access into Florence House and toured the building with its coordinator, Patty Robinson. It is an impressive structure with excellent security and wide open spaces. The cafeteria offers beautiful indoor/outdoor seating with a nice view and many of the residents remark on how much they love being close to nature. Every day the linen is washed from every last bed, and if a woman has stayed at Florence house on a bed downstairs the night before, she is guaranteed shelter the following night providing she shows up in time to claim it. Within 3 months of its completion back in 2010, Florence House already experienced such heavy traffic they had to create a separate overflow room to keep up with it.
Upstairs there are 25 permanent apartments. The women living in these apartments qualify after being homeless for one full year, or having four or more cases of homelessness over a three year span (these are the criteria to qualify as “chronically homeless” as defined by HUD). There are also semi-private spaces, called “Safe Havens” which may work as a transitional platform into permanent housing, but there is no limit to the length in which a woman can stay. “It is important to have the Safe Havens because unlike the apartments, residents do not need to sign a lease. Some of the women are not ready to make a commitment like that but still need housing,” says Patty Robinson. Like Logan Place, Avesta implemented “Housing first” at Florence House, a philosophy that advocates housing as a universal human right, and each resident’s rent is adjusted accordingly to ensure they are securely housed. I was able to meet three of these residents.
“Before I was homeless I didn’t care about people begging for money on the street. I didn’t think about what was going on with them. I looked down on them. Going to a shelter was the best day of my life. It transformed me from the inside out,” confides Donna A., a resident living upstairs in an apartment at Florence House. “Before, when my boyfriend got out of jail we moved in together in an apartment. Then we got evicted, then we got an apartment, then we got evicted, then we got an apartment, then we got evicted again. We knew we couldn’t afford to live anywhere. We had to put our dog down and put all our stuff in storage in one afternoon before we were evicted. When I got back he had gone to live at the YMCA and didn’t really seem to care what happened to me.
“When I went to the shelter for the first time, I kept thinking ‘I can’t live here!’ There were 72 girls on army cots an inch apart from each other. I couldn’t get any sleep. But I’m a fighter. The way I see it, you don’t look back, and I stayed there a year and 8 months collecting bottles, making about $35 a day.”
By the time Florence House was nearing completion, Donna A. was 3rd on the list to receive an apartment. “Coming here, I had to learn how to live on my own. At first there was tension between the girls upstairs and the girls downstairs. It was hard to socialize. Now it’s better. When I got my voucher, I gave it up to stay here. People kept asking me ‘are you crazy?’ But I have everything I want here. If I need food it’s downstairs. If I need to talk to someone, they got staff ready to talk 24 hours. If I need help with something, I got my caseworker right here. I’m independent now, for the first time in my life. My boyfriend can visit, but if I don’t want to see him, I just tell the office and I don’t have to. Why would I want to live anywhere else?”
“I sold everything I had to get my sister and niece out of jail,” explains Jo-Ann as she remembers what led her to a shelter. “I came from a destructive family, they told me they would pay me back, but they didn’t. I did a lot of volunteer work at Preble St. in the kitchen when I was in the shelter, and even after I moved into some apartment buildings. One of the houses I moved to had drug problems, stabbings, and a girl hanged herself. I couldn’t cope with the stress. I’ve got mental illness, and that was a bad place for me to be.” Jo-Ann shifts position frequently as she is in a lot of pain from various physical complications.
“Sorry, I’m an obnoxious woman, and I tell it like it is,” Jo-Ann says with a smile and looks to her friends for affirmation. They nod emphatically. “But we support each other here, because no one can know what I been through like my friends here do. Most people haven’t seen what we’ve seen. What a miracle the day I moved in here! I was so happy.” She grabs some tissues. “Any of us will tell you what it felt like the first time when you walk into the door and you look and see all the room and the bed and you think ‘this (apartment) is all mine?’ It’s unbelievable.”
“I was living with my boyfriend and his friend, and one day he just left,” says Donna G. a resident hopeful who stays downstairs, but is in the process of completing her paperwork to move into her very own apartment.
“At first I associated with nobody. I was homeless, had no health care, and I had a stroke and had to go to the emergency room. Then Florence House helped me get on a path where I could receive insurance. I haven’t been to the emergency room since. Everyone should be covered. People without coverage can’t get checked up until they have to go to the emergency room, less coverage means more people go to the ER, more people go to the ER means the tax payer pays, lower class tax payers won’t be able to keep up which will increase foreclosures, more people become homeless, more people can’t get health care, more people need the ER. It’s all connected. When you live in these settings, you start to see how it works. Everything affects everything else.”
After receiving help from some of the staff at Florence House, Donna G. both them and her role in Florence house differently. “I started to talk to other clients who were getting angry when the staff couldn’t help them right away. There’s 60 of us sometimes and maybe only 4 of them.” This has allowed Donna G. to connect with more staff. “They’re so helpful with everything. They’re like aunts and uncles. They always look out for us, even though some of us have trouble understanding. That’s my part; I have to learn to trust. But I’m getting better at that, and I even got to speak at the state senate. It’s funny, all my life people told me that I was nothing and my voice wouldn’t matter, but now I help people living at Florence House and I was able to find my voice. When I spoke for the state senate or on TV, I spoke for them.
Donna A., Donna G., Jo-Ann
Residents, Florence House