By Jerri Stroud, BBB Editor
When women come to The Women’s Safe House, they get more than emergency shelter from abusive or violent relationships. They get a plan for starting their lives anew.
“What we’ve learned in 38 years of providing this service is that women need help after they leave the shelter” as well as care that begins as soon as they arrive, said Sylvia J. Jackson, executive director of the agency for the last 12 years. The nonprofit, a 2015 TORCH Award winner, serves 400 to 600 women and children each year.
Women who flee a domestic violence situation often are afraid, in crisis and have little or no support system to help them once they’re on their own. During their stay of six to eight weeks, The Women’s Safe House staff work with each woman and her children to develop goals and find the help they need.
When women arrive, they are shown to the “care room,” a warm and inviting space where staff take care of immediate needs before assigning the family to a suite. The shelter, a former apartment building, has suites that can house one or two families, depending on their size. Kitchens have been removed to make more bedrooms, but each suite has an adjoining bathroom. Between 25 and 30 families can be housed at the shelter’s 50 to 55 beds at any time.
As part of the intake process, women receive a basic safety plan, which suggests having some money they can access at a friend’s house, copies of their children’s vital records and enough cash on hand to pay for a cab ride to a meeting place for transportation to the shelter. During a woman’s stay, staff members work with her to adapt the plan to her own needs or desires.
Within 48 hours, a case manager is assigned to a woman and her children. The case manager and another staff member, called a life coach, work with the woman to determine her goals, whether that’s finding transitional or permanent housing, a job or going back to school. The needs of children, including school, are addressed, too.
“The woman has to identify a goal for herself,” said Jackson. “We try to provide her with the best options, and let her make a decision.” The life coach may suggest therapy or other support – or just listen.
In some cases, women don’t want to participate in case management, Jackson said. “They just want to recover and move on,” she said. In many cases, these women will return to the shelter after a few months. “We welcome them back and start all over again.”
The Women’s Safe House also offers an AfterCare program, which supports women for a year after they leave the shelter. Because women who come to the shelter are by definition homeless, they may be eligible for up to $2,000 in assistance that can include first and last month’s rent, utility deposits and some transportation expenses. The program includes a support group and monthly home visits as well as a newsletter.
From its beginnings in 1977, The Women’s Safe House has operated under the radar, partly by design. The shelter’s location is kept secret, and anyone who comes there, including employees or service providers, must sign an agreement not to disclose the location.
Jackson is working on ways to increase the shelter’s visibility with the public without compromising its services. “We want everyone in St. Louis to know about domestic violence and to know that we can change that,” she said. “We want to end violence against women and girls.”
The agency has a curriculum that can be used in schools to teach children know how to protect themselves, how to resist cyberbullying and to know when to intervene to help a classmate. The Women’s Safe House also was a cosponsor of the Take Back the Night March in April on the campus of Harris-Stowe State University. Jackson spoke at a reception after the march.
The Women’s Safe House has developed metrics for measuring outcomes for the women it serves, and Jackson is working with a graduate student to develop metrics for the after-care program. Some of the metrics are necessary for obtaining grants or other donations, but they’re also part of the agency’s strategic plan. She also files homelessness statistics with St. Louis County and St. Louis city.
Jackson and her staff also are undergoing training through the United Way, including shared leadership training, as well as training through the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. The coalition requires at least 20 hours of continuing education related to domestic violence every year, and staff members also get 40 hours of training when they are hired.
Jackson works with her staff to see that they are taking care of themselves because the work itself is so stressful. She tries to have birthday parties, time for fellowship and provide other recognition for staff members.
Without self-care, Jackson said, it can be difficult for The Women’s Safe House to meet its mission of providing “safe shelter and transitional living services to battered women and their dependent children and to empower women to make informed choices about their futures.”
Profiles of BBB Accredited Businesses and BBB Accredited Charities are created as part of BBB’s TORCH Award process and are not intended as an endorsement. To register for this year’s TORCH Awards luncheon on Nov. 13, go to http://www.bbb.org/stlouis/events.