ENGLEWOOD — As the nation celebrated its birthday last week, the staff at a local shelter looked forward to celebrating independence of a different sort — 40 years of helping women in troubled circumstances stand on their own.
This month, at least two women at Maria Shelter will transition to independent living, and the shelter celebrates its own anniversary in January.
"With the Lord's help, we hope to be around another 40 years, helping people get back on their feet," said Angela Hicks, executive director of the Institute of Women Today, a nonprofit organization that runs the 50-bed Maria Shelter at 7315 S. Yale Ave.
"We help women get back on their feet and on their way," Hicks said. "The average resident stays here eight months, although 18 months is our target time frame for assisting them to find employment and permanent housing."
Homeless women are allowed to stay at the shelter despite substance abuse or other problems, and are allowed to bring their children under the age of 18.
The organization, founded by the late Margaret Traxler, a Catholic nun, also operates a family shelter that admits men at 9519 S. Commercial Ave.
Across the street from Maria Shelter is Vincennes Senior Center, a recreational facility that offers free activities and a daily lunch to 70 local seniors citizens a week. Medical students from the University of Chicago Medicine provide free exams every Wednesday for residents at the shelter, Hicks said.
Angela Wright, 42, has lived at Maria Shelter since April, but she plans to move out this month.
"On Monday I pick up my keys to my apartment," a joyous Wright said. "I will be moving to the South Shore area, and I can't wait. There's nothing like having your own place. That is the one thing I miss the most."
The grandmother of three said she became homeless after losing her job as a cashier this year.
"I could not have got back on track if it were not for the awesome people at Maria Shelter. This is a really nice place to live if you are homeless," she said.
Residents receive three meals a day and "loads of counseling," said Gwen Fowler, director of the shelter. "When a resident does leave here they are fully prepared to live independently and maintain themselves."
Living arrangements are set up dorm style, so instead of individual bedrooms, several beds are spread out in a large room. Hicks said shelter applicants need a third-party referral to be admitted.
"They could be referred by a church, police station, hospital, another shelter or the city's Human Services Department," Hicks said. "This way we can account for each person who stays with us."
Accountability is important. Thirty-five percent of the shelter's $800,000 annual funding comes from the city, Hicks said.
Another resident also is preparing to leave the shelter this month.
Doris Conrad, 54, will be moving to the Park Manor neighborhood. Like Wright, Conrad has three grandchildren. Before moving to Maria Shelter, she lived three years with her 36-year-old son and daughter-in-law.
"It just was not working out with me staying with them. Before I moved in with my son, I was staying with friends in Morgan Park," said Conrad, who became homeless after losing her job at a restaurant. "I miss my privacy and having a piece of mind. This place is wonderful, but I will feel better once I am back in my own place."
Fowler said the shelter requires women with a regular income, such as Social Security or public aid, to save 70 percent of it.
"I have to remind some residents, who frown at saving so much money, that they are living here for free and do not have to buy anything. We have a special account where we deposit their money until they need it to secure housing," Fowler said. "The ladies give us a money order made payable to themselves and we put it up for them for future use."
Amid the violence that has plagued Englewood, Hicks said "Everybody knows we are here to help people."
She recalled how a man brought a lost boy to the shelter in January.
"This man brought a 3-year-old boy he found walking around late at night to us. I remember him saying, 'I'm not sure what you guys do here, but this little boy is lost. Can you help him?' And obviously we did."