United Way at Work
Rescue Outreach Mission
“We left with just the clothes on our backs. I couldn’t find help anywhere, I didn’t know what we were going to do,” says Erica. It seems almost impossible that an unemployed, pregnant, homeless, single mother of three who was only weeks away from delivering her fourth child could be back on track in a mere 180 days. But that’s what happens in the United Way funded Rescue Outreach Mission Opportunities and Hope Program. And Erica says she’s confident it will happen for her too.
A native of Sanford, Erica fled to Ohio with her three children while her abusive husband was incarcerated. But then he got released and tracked her down. She says she found him one night standing in the middle of her living room. So she grabbed her kids and immediately returned to Sanford and sought refuge at a domestic violence shelter. But the shelter could only provide a very limited stay and with her baby just about due, the clock was ticking. She says she called agency after agency looking for help but could not find a place for herself and her children until her Godmother called Rescue Outreach Mission on her behalf.
“I always ask people how they ended up in Sanford,” says Women and Children’s Shelter Residents Coordinator Melanie Barnes. It’s a bit of a personal curiosity for her, because even though Erica is a Sanford native, most of the shelter’s residents aren’t. Neither was Barnes when she first arrived. She was a college student at the time, living in West Palm Beach when she became pregnant. She followed her boyfriend to his hometown of Sanford, but he ended up in jail and she ended up homeless with a baby. Like so many after her, she and her son moved into the Rescue Outreach Mission emergency shelter, a fact she shares with all of her clients.
“Some clients look at me and say, ‘oh, I could never do what you did,’ but a lot of them find my story motivating. Everyone here is in the same boat, so everyone here can get out of the same boat. We just have to help each other out,” says Barnes.
A renovation during the summer of 2014 allowed the Mission to expand its Women and Children’s shelter. It can now house nine families and 12 single women. An expansion at the men’s shelter next door provides enough beds for 48 men. Most of them are single men, but some are spouses or fathers to the women and children at the Mission. Any number of circumstances can land them there. Some lose their jobs, some discover abruptly that they’re renting a house in foreclosure, and some, like Erica, are escaping domestic abuse. They spend 90 days working with counselors to assess their situation, set goals, create a contract for attaining those goals and apply for the different types of assistance available to them. They then spend an additional 90 days working towards entering the Mission’s transitional housing program.
“Everything here is really structured and that really helps to keep me focused. I might not have liked it at another part of my life, but right now it’s really helping me,” says Erica. She’s a whirlwind who shows no hints that she’s up every two hours with her two-week-old son or that she’s recovering from a C-section. She’s in a hurry to get things back under control.
“They keep telling me it’s ok to slow down and take a breath, that I need to rest and wait until he’s old enough for daycare,” says Erica. Daycare is already arranged, and it’s free for the first 90 days Erica is in the program. After that, it costs only a few dollars a week for the next 90 days. Free and low cost childcare is one of several safeguards in place for residents to enable them to save money. They also get help with setting up a bank account, rent assistance, transportation and even school if that’s one of their goals. Barnes was able to finish her degree after entering the shelter. Erica says she’s now interested in getting a degree in nutrition.
“I did not know when I came here that they had so many resources available,” says Erica.
The Mission is just about to start decorating for the holidays. It will host a community dinner on the day before Thanksgiving and the day before Christmas. It also hands out food boxes so its community members can put together a meal at home. Barnes says donations are usually generous and the children in the program “are well taken care of.” By Christmas, Erica will be ready to return to work. As someone who’s been steadily employed as a server since she was 16, she’s confident she’ll find a job. Then she’ll pursue that degree in nutrition. Once she has that in hand, she plans to pitch herself to Rescue Outreach Mission as their in-house nutritionist.
“My goal is to be back here working in one year,” says Erica. In 180 days she’ll have transformed from homeless and unemployed to employed and in transitional housing. 180 days after that, she could have her life on an entirely new path.