In 2018, Fort Wayne resident Lisa Fabian said, 1,022 people called United Way of Allen County’s 211 emergency helpline looking for shelter for a homeless single woman.
That’s three times the number of calls for single homeless men. Trouble was, in Fort Wayne, there was no place to help them if they weren’t addicted or in a domestic abuse situation, she said.
But now a group of women – and men – have banded together to solve that problem through the creation of a program they hope can start its first phase as soon as next month.
St. Joseph Missions Women’s Shelter has applied to the Fort Wayne Board of Zoning Appeals for a use variance to convert a building at 3505 Lake Ave. into a place to help women achieve housing self-sufficiency.
The shelter, said Fabian, the shelter’s executive director, is the outgrowth of a group of Catholics who began working with homeless people in 2016 by offering a Tuesday night meal twice a month in the parking lot of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Fort Wayne.
But, after seeing women in need, the idea of starting a shelter grew, and the group began focusing on it by 2018, said Monique Levesque, board president.
“We did some research and we found out this was the only group that wasn’t being helped,” said Levesque, a Fort Wayne chiropractor. “We’ve been continually getting calls from other (nonprofit) groups inquiring whether our shelter was open yet.”
The group plans to reuse a building formerly housing attorneys’ offices. The plan is to convert it to house as many as 18 women. Two clients would share a bedroom. One room would be reserved for four women who are new arrivals.
The shelter would operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week and have one full-time and seven part-time employees.
Unlike the Rescue Mission’s homeless shelter for men, women would not have to leave the shelter during the day, Fabian said. But through a memo of understanding, the women would be linked with services such as job search skills and employment training, she said.
Fabian said women from various backgrounds are expected to use the shelter, many coming through referrals from other agencies.
Residents qualify by being homeless or living in a vehicle or in imminent danger of homelessness by virtue of eviction or foreclosure or inability to afford or secure housing, she said.
Some might have aged out of foster care or been discharged from a hospital or rehabilitation facility or another program. Women could be fleeing sex trafficking.
Growing groups of women needing housing are those over 60 after death of a spouse and those working two or three jobs who lose one of them.
Organizers said they would not be averse to taking abused women if other shelters are full. They also could accept addicted women, provided they agree to be tested and not to use while in the program and abide by other rules.
But the shelter is not a court-ordered facility, organizers stressed.
They added the program also would be flexible about women with children, who could be cared for by the SAFE Families program in Fort Wayne and Whittington Homes.
If women have income, they would contribute some to the shelter, and they would be responsible for some meals and household work. Stays are planned for an average of 45 days.
The group has received a donation from a Catholic foundation to furnish a prayer room/chapel, but prayer participation is planned as optional, Fabian said. She and Levesque say the program’s religious orientation has broadened to Christian.
Religion will not be pushed on clients, but the program will still have a spiritual dimension, Fabian said. Residents will be “treated with respect and with dignity,” she said, as her faith expects.
“A lot of times, (homeless) people will feel they’re not worthy of respect, of the life they can achieve,” said Fabian, who has 16 years of experience working in Fort Wayne nonprofits. “We want to help them get over that thought.”
Fabian said the group has a donation from the St. Mary’s Heritage Fund to purchase the building, and organizers plan to repay the money. The purchase will not occur until after the necessary approvals are granted, and the purchase price is not being disclosed at this time, she said.
Although the property is zoned multifamily residential, the project needs a use variance because a homeless shelter is not considered as a special use in that zone, typically used for apartments. The shelter project is not seeking other variances.
The group hopes to be finished and open as early as the end of this year. In-kind labor has been secured to do renovations, Fabian said, but the group is still seeking volunteers for that and to help with fundraising, which has been affected because COVID-19 forced the cancellation of a scheduled fundraiser.
More information is at www.stjosephmissions.org.
The shelter has support from more than two dozen area religious and nonprofit organizations serving various populations.
“One of the things I’ve been inspired by is the women who have overcome homelessness,” said Fabian, noting one serves on the group’s board. “For them, they are finally able to have a voice, and give a voice to their homeless sisters.”