She tried to leave four times. Each time she entered the fragile and dubious network of Wilmington’s battered women’s and homeless shelters.
The shelters offered Judith only a 30-day respite from the spiral of threat and risk that defined her life.
“From day one entering one of those shelters, you are already thinking about day 30 and where you and your child are going to go next,” Judith says.
Four times it meant Judith returning to that abusive relationship and to the cycle of despair and drug and alcohol abuse that inevitably accompanied each of those returns home.
Finally, having gotten herself clean and sober for four months, Judith decided to leave for good. She packed only those belongings she could carry on a bus along with her daughter’s, and headed for the YWCA’s Home-Life Management Center, which she had heard about during her shelter stays.
The center offered a clean room for her and her daughter, meals, and, perhaps most important, a program of life skills designed to help Judith carve out a future.
“The problem at the time, though, was I’d been clean for four months, and the Y’s program requires six months of being clean and sober,” Judith says.
Two more shelter stays later, along with a new job that required up to eight bus trips per day to get Judith to work, her daughter to school, then both back to the shelter in the evening, Judith met the six-month requirement for admittance to the Home-Life Management Center.
Judith now has a life that can be lived with promise and fulfillment.
“If it wasn’t for this program, I’d probably be back in that abusive relationship and sleeping outdoors, since I would have exhausted access to shelters by now,” says Judith, who is now a full-time employee of the YWCA and hard at work on an associate’s degree in human services at Delaware Tech.
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Begun in 1989, the YWCA’s Home-Life Management Center was conceived to address the number of women living in public shelters with children. Working with the Wilmington Housing Authority, the YWCA redeveloped half the row homes in the 700 block of North Madison Street. The organization later added adjoining property in the rear, converting it to a play area and garden.
“Our residents are essentially homeless,” says Ginny Marino, CEO for the YWCA of Delaware. “At the center we emphasize personal responsibility, discipline and goal-setting.”
Qualifications for admittance to the center also include having full custody of all children under age 18. Income parameters are set annually by New Castle County. The facility at North Madison consists of 23 individual sleeping rooms and 10 one- and two-bedroom apartments.
“Residents may bring clothing and personal items, and we provide linen, furniture and personal hygiene items, along with their room and board,” Marino says.
During the first 30 days, residents are required to arrange for child care, schooling or babysitting during daytime business hours.
“We do not provide these services,” Marino says. “Our principle is, it is your child, therefore your responsibility.”
There is also an educational assessment of parents and children, along with a psychological assessment of the household. Adults are expected to enroll in custodial training, not only for commercial job placement, but also to learn to maintain the common areas of the center.
“This is not a hotel,” says Marino. “Custodial training is a gateway to employment in the custodial industry.”
So is continuing education a gateway to a better career and life. The center offers an onsite GED facility for adults who need to complete their high school educations—a requirement for all residents.
Culinary training includes cooking classes and grocery shopping that focuses on purchasing and preparing balanced diets.
Workshops to provide foundational skills necessary to acquire a job are conducted Monday through Thursday evenings, and all residents are expected to attend.
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“We try to instill that there is a rhythm to the day of work, development and play,” Marino says. There is a bed check at 9:30 a.m. to ensure that rhythm is underway at a reasonably early hour.
Residents who arrive homeless and unemployed can expect to receive free room and board. But as their skills develop and they find work, they are expected to pay a portion of their room and board. Transition from individual rooms to an apartment requires earned income to pay rent.
When a resident moves into an apartment, skills development changes to longer-range goals. Toward that end, the YWCA has partnered with a network of public, private and non-profit groups to form the Delaware Asset Building Group. The group’s mission is to increase asset-building opportunities for Delaware’s working families.
“It’s part of our economic empowerment mission for women, core to what we do,” Marino says. “What’s different for us now is that we’re beginning to probe state policy issues, looking for policy opportunities to close the gap between state social services and the programs we offer.”
Marino refers to that gap as “benefit cliffs,” which occur when income growth causes a reduction in state subsidies and families “wind up losing more than they gain.”
The YWCA sees the solution as two-fold: providing a foundation for developing self-sufficiency, then adding education and training to develop a career path that will provide for the next level of independence and wealth creation: savings, a car and, ultimately, home ownership and retirement.
“We believe people have the ability to work themselves out of their problems and into prosperity,” Marino says. “The YWCA is important for the support and navigation that our tough love approach provides.”
Judith spent a little more than six months in a room with a bunk bed, then transitioned to a one-bedroom apartment, where she spent the next four years earning her GED and certification from the Delaware Skill Center in computer skills. She worked awhile for the state until being laid off. She then joined the YWCA’s staff. She’s been drug-free for six years.
“I was never around what I call normal living until I came to the center,” she says. “My daughter is doing well in school, too. One day a while back she came to me and said, ‘Why did it take you so long to leave [the abusive relationship]?’ The center stabilized both our lives and has given both of us a second chance.”
After graduating from DelTech, Judith plans to counsel battered and-or homeless women, assuring them that “while it’s hard, you can get through it. I did it. So can you.”
Because of the Home-Life Management Center, Judith can now contemplate a future in years and decades, not 30-day increments. For residents such as Judith, the center was a net. Now it’s a ladder.
Of the 4,000 women who have passed through the program since 1989, Marino says 80 percent remain independent and self-sufficient a year after leaving the center.
She says teaching people to fish rather than giving them a fish applies to the YWCA’s work. “We’re all about teaching people to fish.”