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New Housing Helps Homeless Women

A new transitional living program opened for women this fall, built almost entirely on small contributions and the work of volunteers.  The Freedom House on 31st and Charlotte in midtown will provide a home for four homeless women who are trying to get their lives back together.  KCUR's Susan B. Wilson paid a visit in early November, when the first residents moved in. For those two women, it was their first chance in a while to be a part of a real “home."

Kameela Patterson, 33, has been homeless on and off for the past three years. She says that looking back, her problems started early in life. She struggled in school because of a hearing problem that was never assessed or addressed.  She says frustration with learning led her to drop out of school, marry young and have children. The marriage was an unhappy one, leading to a string of evictions and other problems. The lack of an education held her back in the job market.

Freedom House does not have room for children, in part so that women can focus on themselves and re-building a stable life. Patterson felt she made the right decision to leave her children temporarily.

“Honestly, we even sat at bus stops until daylight where my babies had to fall asleep on my lap,” Patterson said. “It feels a lot better for them to say ‘Well this time we don’t want to go to the shelter. We could just stay with dad.’”

For Stephanie Russell, another Freedom House resident, a domino effect of multiple problems and setbacks led to homelessness.  

“I was trying to keep my car. I was having back problems,” Russell says. “The store I was working at closed down with no notice.”

Russell has been sleeping in and out of her car for the past two years. Both women have tried shelters at some point. They say the shelter system doesn’t work to help get homeless people on their feet. Shelters can be overcrowded and provide limited support services. That’s why transitional housing programs—like Freedom House—are so important, they say.

The house was the vision of Alice Piggee-Wallack, Nazarene pastor and former social worker.  Growing up in Gary, Indiana, she says that her own experiences helped give her the vision for the shelter.

 “I’ve been there. My life has been a journey. I’ve had some tough times,” Piggee-Wallack says. “I’ve had times where I didn’t have any confidence in my abilities."

Piggee-Wallack's True Light Ministry began in 2000, and its congregation now has about 65 people. They began doing street outreach near 27th and Troost Streets, attempting to bring hope and encouragement to sex workers, the homeless and others down on their luck. Eventually, Piggee-Wallack and a crew of volunteers transformed a dilapidated two story house into Freedom House, a comfortable and safe haven for four women.

The house is 100 years old, has seven rooms and cozy blue and beige furnishings. The renovation took about a year and a half and was made possible through donations from Home Depot and volunteers. Women at Freedom House don't pay rent, but they contribute food stamps for their meals and provide services to the ministry and community. They also receive case management services to link them to resources—like jobs, training and health services—that can help them become self-sufficient. For Kameela Patterson, being at Freedom House means working on some of the problems that are the root cause of her homelessness.

“It’s not just a place to stay,” Patterson said. “It’s teaching us responsibilities. It’s helping build us up.”

But the road to transformation for some women is not an easy one. Piggee-Wallack says that she has been surprised by how some women do not like the rules and structure that are important to building a new life. Two women have left Freedom House since its opening.

“When I heard this is like a jail I was so surprised,” Piggee-Wallack says. “I was surprised to hear someone say they would rather live in their car.”

Piggee-Wallack says she is now trying to get mental health services for the women who live at Freedom House. She says she has always had the uncanny ability to see things not as they are, but as they could be.

“They always accused me of being a dreamer,” Piggee-Wallack says. “They were right about one thing—I am.”

For new residents of Freedom House like Stephanie Russell, having a place to call home means a lot.

 “No more sleeping in my car. No more worrying about where I’m going to take a shower, eat and sleep,” Russell says. “I’m free now.”

A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Susan admits that her “first love” was radio, being an avid listener since childhood. However, she spent much of her career in mental health, healthcare administration, and sports psychology (Susan holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania and an MBA from the Bloch School of Business at UMKC.) In the meantime, Wilson satisfied her journalistic cravings by doing public speaking, providing “expert” interviews for local television, and being a guest commentator/contributor to KPRS’s morning drive time show and the teen talk show “Generation Rap.”
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