By 7:30 a.m., there usually are four or five women already in line waiting for the staff to open the doors of Catholic Charities’ Housing Transitions Drop-In Center. For women living on the streets, isolation and anxiety are constant. Finding a place where they are welcomed and supported, regularly, is a sanctuary. Program manager Margi Dechenne understands that and takes it to heart.
“I had met and gotten to know a homeless woman named Rhonda who shared her ideas about the services homeless women need,” said Dechenne. “Rhonda told me, ‘There are lots of places I can get a coat. Be glad to see me. I’ll know if you aren’t.’” That had an impact on Dechenne. “I think we all know if someone is glad to see us or not, but the radar of people who are homeless operates at a whole other level. So when the women come into our drop-in every morning, I say it as often as I can, and I think it as I make eye contact: ‘I’m glad to see you.’ I hope they know it.”
Dechenne and her team work to serve more than 900 homeless women each year, providing basic assistance such as showers, laundry facilities, meals, case management and compassion. The average age of the women who come to the program is around 50; the oldest current client is 90. While meeting basic day-to-day needs is a priority, the program also offers long-term stability and permanent housing for approximately 100 clients each year. This is no easy task as it is no longer possible for an individual living on a typical Social Security disability income of $733 per month to find a one-bedroom apartment. As a result, Housing Transitions clients are spending longer times outside, in shelters or in their vehicles. These situations often are unsafe or unsavory. But, despite these challenges, Dechenne remains optimistic. “If we are persistent, and if our client can hang in there with us, it almost always works out.”
Catholic Charities is not doing the work alone. In January, the agency moved five elderly homeless women, described by Dechenne as “our Golden Girls,” into the Martha and Mary Home in Southeast Portland, thanks to the generosity of the family of the late Bob and Evelyn Dieringer. They also received a multiyear grant from Kaiser Permanente Northwest, allowing Dechenne to hire two new peer-support specialists who can work closely with homeless women with severe, persistent mental illness — usually the hardest to find and keep in housing.
To learn more about the Housing Transitions Program, call 503-688-2670.
Howell is director of development for Catholic Charities.