Each of this year’s Taste of the Biltmore beneficiaries approaches the challenges of homelessness in a different way. What they have in common are supportive surrounding communities that understand the importance of meeting the needs of the less fortunate—contributing through donations and volunteer efforts, and ensuring that human dignity leaves no one behind.
Sister José Women’s Center, Tucson
Sister José Women’s Center in Tucson opened in the winter of 2009 for the simplest of reasons.
“The men in the community had a winter shelter, but the women didn’t have a specific place for them,” says Jean Fedigan, the organization’s founder and now executive director. She put out a call for volunteers, found 22, and set up each night in the downtown First Assembly of God Church after the final service.
“Women would appear out of the dark,” she continues. “We provided them soup, blankets and a place to sleep. In the mornings, we gave them something to put in their tummies, and got them up and on their way.”
Three years later, a local couple loaned a rental house to the center, which became a 501(c)(3). With 750 square feet of space, they were able to serve 11 women each night and opened a day program that accommodated as many as 60.
“That works until you learn how many women are out there who are homeless,” says Fedigan. After a five-year campaign to raise funds for a larger facility and additional programming, they found and purchased an old metal warehouse large enough to sleep 35 to 38 women a night with a commercial kitchen that can serve 2,000 meals a month.
“The community support has been tremendous, and volunteers come from across all faiths and walks of life,” Fedigan adds. “The day program blossomed. Women can take a shower, do laundry, get a bite to eat, take a class, or simply rest.”
The center is also unusual in the respect that it allows women to bring their dogs, and helps outfit them with food, leashes and boots.
Sister José Women’s Center partners with organizations such as the Arizona Department of Economic Security, the Homeless Project, and Beacon Group to provide access to behavioral and medical care, and is in the process of hiring a dedicated case worker.
“We have a busy, vibrant community where women can feel safe,” says Fedigan. “Most of all, it’s about when they wave goodbye and say ‘Thanks, you made me feel human again.’”
Prescott Area Shelter Services, Prescott
Prescott Area Shelter Services (PASS) takes a multifaceted approach to the community’s challenges with homelessness. The emergency homeless shelter serves up to 27 women and children overnight, with a two-room expansion completed last year to accommodate moms with boys 12 and older. Due to the shelter’s proximity to the VA hospital, they also prioritize serving veteran women and wives of veterans as part of their mission.
Like so many organizations, however, the coronavirus pandemic forced PASS to alter their strategy during 2020. “Normally we’re a nighttime shelter, open at 5 p.m. at night and closed after 8 a.m. in the morning,” says Carmen Frederic, executive director. “People can keep a box here that locks, but we ask that they either search for work or are out in the community, and not just sitting around at the shelter. When COVID-19 first happened, everything in our community closed down, so we basically opened our facility to be 24/7 at that point. It’s been a lot more intensive this year—and a lot more expensive.”
At the overnight shelter, Prescott Area Shelter Services provides an hour a week of intensive case management to each person and engages with them every single day. “We want to know exactly what’s going on in their life,” Frederic says. “We’re always encouraging them, asking how many interviews they’ve done. The plan is to give them 90 days, but we can extend a bit for someone who’s working really hard.”
In the past year, Prescott Area Shelter Services expanded its mission to include two transitional homes that were provided by a property owner in Chino Valley, 17 miles from the main shelter, at a below-market rate.
“Sometimes an individual or family reaches the end of their stay at the emergency shelter, but they need a year or two to wait until they get into permanent housing,” says Frederic. “We know them, so there’s no huge deposit or background check. They just pay rent and a portion of utilities, and see a case manager once per week. It’s been amazing, because it helps people leave our shelter a little quicker when they have an option for a normal life, working and going to school.”
House of Refuge, Mesa
Based in Mesa, House of Refuge provides transitional housing and social services to families experiencing homelessness, about 70 percent of them for the first time.
“I think people often have the misconception that social service agencies primarily assist what we call the chronically homeless,” says Krista Cardona, marketing coordinator. “Most of the individuals we assist have just fallen on hard times. They may have had a medical situation or been evicted from their apartment, or they’ve been couch-surfing, living out of their cars, or come from a domestic violence shelter.”
The goal for House of Refuge is to help families break the cycle of poverty, get back on their feet, and transition out of the community and into a place of their own within 12 months. Applicants need to meet a few qualifications, including proving they have a child under the age of 18 under their care, and that they have some sort of income, whether from a job, child support, or Supplemental Security Income. Nearly two-thirds of residents are single female heads of household.
While many similar transitional organizations have a single facility or homes scattered across a wide area, House of Refuge offers a unique environment: It’s located on the former Williams Air Force Base, which was decommissioned in 1993 and acquired by the organization in 1995.
Of the 88 two-bedroom, one-bath homes, 80 are used for furnished housing, for which families pay $400 a month including utilities, clothing, food boxes and social services. The remainder are dedicated to essential services such as places to meet with caseworkers, and the donation and employment education centers.
“We’re actually a neighborhood, not too different from elsewhere in the Valley, and everything that our residents need is within a stone’s throw of their front door,” Cardona says. “But it’s not just the house we’re giving them; we’re wrapping them in really supportive social services that are essential to helping them figure out their next step. Thanks to the phenomenal East Valley community that has supported us, particularly during COVID, we can give families the time, space and faith to stabilize their lives and the lives of their children.”
Story: Jake Poinier
Photos: Mark Lipczynski