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Bowery Mission Opens Transitional Home for Women in Harlem

By Jeff Mays | November 19, 2012 10:19am

HARLEM — For years, Heidi Spahn held it together as a functional alcoholic and drug addict while working in the import-export industry in Cleveland.

Then it all fell apart within a matter of months. Three back-to-back DUI arrests left the 35-year-old facing jail time and feeling like life wasn't worth living.

Spahn, who had moved to Milwaukee, called the Bowery Mission over and over again until she was accepted into a transitional program that not only gives women the skills they need to make it on their own but the intensive support, such as counseling, spiritual guidance and housing, to change their lives.

Now Spahn is among the first group of women who will live at the two brownstones on 130th Street that were acquired by the organization. The Bowery Mission Women's Center at Harlem is the group's first foray into the neighborhood.

"It's not like you're here for six months and they say get out. They care about us and our well-being," said Spahn. "It's the right way to transition."

And Spahn should know. This is the third program she's been in. But it's only now that family and friends are telling her that she finally seems to have her head on straight.

"Some of us take longer than others," said Spahn, who was working at the brownstone residence last week assembling some of the donated Ikea accessories that will go in the rooms of the women's residence.

"My mom said I sound the best I've sounded in several years."

The Bowery's Harlem transitional program resembles one the group has already established on the Upper East Side. There, women who have suffered from drug abuse, domestic violence and homelessness are placed in an intensive faith-based program designed to lead them to recovery.

"By extending our residential programs to women in 2005, we [were] trying to help the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population in New York, where [there are] more women than men," said James Winans, the Bowery Mission's director of development.

"This project in Harlem, when complete, will allow us to serve more than twice as many women."

Over the course of as many as 15 months, the women live in a brownstone and participate in a daily curriculum that includes employment training, life skills classes, counseling and creative activities. They support one another and try to reconnect with their families.

"Most of the lives of the women here involved trauma of some sort. There are also women who find themselves here who never expected to be here," said Cheryl Mitchell, director of the Bowery Mission Women's Center at Harlem.

Once women graduate from that program and begin to find employment, they move to the transitional housing for an average six- to nine-month stay. The actual amount of time is tailored to each woman.

The important services continue while the women begin to enter the workforce. Instead of paying rent, they are allowed to save their earnings to begin to prepare to transition to independent living.

"It gives you time to get your life together and gives you a new start when you go out in the world," said Victoria, 55, a program participant who asked that only her first name be used to protect her privacy.

Another program participant, Eva, 56, who also requested that her last name not be used, said someone works with you each day of the program.

"When you're homeless, people sometimes rush you to try and get your life together. Here, they do it in steps. The difference is the support," she said.

On a recent afternoon Eva and Victoria were volunteering, sweeping the floors of the transitional home. Inside, the once-damaged brownstone had been restored to a more beautiful state. The original tin ceilings in a downstairs living quarter had been kept in tact.

The rooms, which will house up to eight women, were decorated well enough to give the average New Yorker apartment envy.

One room had a bed with a yellow bedspread next to a window with light-filtering shades. Next to the bed was a restored wooden mantle fireplace. The floor was decorated with colorful red rugs. A white modern dining table was set with white dishes. The women share bathrooms, kitchens and common areas.

"It's like a home environment. You can tell a lot of love was put into it," said Eva.

The brownstones had sat vacant for at least a decade before the Bowery Mission purchased them from a nearby church. They were in decay and disrepair and required extensive renovation.

Amish volunteers had taken the spindles of the stairs to their wood shop in Pennsylvania to repair them. And that wasn't the only volunteer work used to accomplish the project, according to Winans.

Over 3,100 volunteer hours were donated over six months to complete the transitional home. Five residents of the Bowery's Men's transitional program worked on the project, including two who did so for the full six months. Several companies donated the carpeting, furniture, kitchens and even the construction materials.

Outreach was done in the neighborhood to explain the goals of the program and as part of a good-faith effort to be excellent neighbors, said James Macklin, the Bowery's director of outreach.

Rep. Charles Rangel and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, whose wife Veronica worked with the Bowery on the project, are expected to be at a grand opening ceremony Tuesday. Veronica Kelly has been a champion of the Upper East Side women's center, working to raise money for restoration and maintenance of the project.

Approximately 20 women, ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s, will live in the two buildings once they are both completed. Up to eight women are expected to move into the transitional housing now while the other brownstone for the initial counseling program is finished.

Eva, Victoria and Spahn said having the time to work on themselves has made the difference in their lives.

"You really have to see someone who came in at the beginning and then see them at the end to understand this is a place of healing," said Eva, who is interested in going into social work.

Spahn said she plans to stay in New York and is considering becoming a drug counselor.

"Who is going to let you come and live for free and save your money in New York City?" she said.

Victoria wants to open a home with her son caring for disabled people, the same type of work she did for 30 years for her family.

"I learned that when I jump from this side to the other that I can be on my own and be all right," Victoria  said.