James Allen Walker

Safe house

Compassion | WORLD's East Region winner, the Bowery Women's Center, provides addicted women security, stability, and the love of Christ

Issue: "Orphaned no more," July 30, 2011

NEW YORK CITY-The name "Bowery Mission" is most often associated with a men's program in lower Manhattan and its storied past. Founded in 1879, Bowery is the third-oldest rescue mission in the country. Eleanor Roosevelt sang in the chapel as a child, J.C. Penney found salvation there, Fanny Crosby penned hymns for the mission, and President William Howard Taft dropped by in 1909.

At the Bowery men's facility in lower Manhattan, institutional sounds and smells pervade. Metal chairs squeak on linoleum. Deep voices fill the space as men line up for the evening meal. Seemingly a world away, red doors provide an entrance into the Bowery Women's Center on the Upper East Side. Decorator fabrics and coordinated throw pillows accent tastefully arranged common rooms. French doors open onto a bucolic terraced patio area. Bedrooms have Pottery Barn décor rather than the military-style bunks of the men's shelter.

For women coming out of abusive relationships, prostitution, or the chaos of substance abuse, the order, security, and beauty of this house can be a balm. Women's Program Director Debbie Jonnes says, "We provide a safe and secure environment where someone can come to know the love of Christ." For many women it's the first place that has afforded them the security and stability to take stock of their lives and deal with the personal issues that have so often driven them to addictions and unhealthy relationships.

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Phase one of the 18-month women's program focuses on discipleship, life skills, counseling, and career development. Residents read several Christian books and write about what they learned. They learn computer skills and how to write a resumé and cover letter. Women also craft an "elevator story"-explaining their skills and what job they are seeking in the time it takes to ride an elevator with someone-a useful tool in Manhattan where elevators are sometimes a point of access to influential people.

In phase two, women start looking for jobs and meeting with their career counselors. They send out resumés and sometimes begin eight- or 12-week vocational training through a partner organization. In phase three they begin work, try to find a new place to live (often sharing an apartment), and develop a life plan. Sixty women have graduated from the program since 2005 by meeting five requirements: They must be connected with Christ, connected to family, committed to being clean and sober, have a job and a place to live, and have a plan for the future.

Cynthia DeJesus graduated from the program in 2010. The women's program helped her overcome her nine-year heroin addiction: "Now when anger, low self-esteem, and distrust kick in, I don't think about getting high. . . . Now I go to God. I think about my kids. I think about how I can be a better mother and grandmother." She enjoys her new life: "Being clean feels great!" Vivian Hernandez, life skills manager at the Bowery Mission women's program, hopes other women follow in Cynthia's path, so in class she cuts no slack. No shuffling through papers. No talking. No forgetting your pencil.

Hernandez even told one woman, "No, you can't close the window. I don't think my hot flashes can take it." Despite the noise of the sudden downpour outside her classroom, the window stayed open. Her combination of structure and passionate teaching works. The morning's lesson was on wisdom and foolishness from Proverbs 1:20. All eyes were on Hernandez. Eleven women discussed the merits of wisdom and the consequences of foolishness. "No area is more ravaged by foolishness than morality," Hernandez said. "It has consequences." This prompted a heartfelt round of "mm hmm," "amen" and a quiet "yes."

Hernandez told students she knew firsthand the consequences of immorality: "As you all know I am living with the [HIV] virus." They've learned her story: Hernandez grew up in a middle-class, stable home, the daughter of a New York policeman and a teacher, but that all changed when Hernandez was 17 and a drunk driver killed her mother. Her father died soon after of heart disease. Her brother died of AIDS a few years later. Hernandez began using drugs to numb herself to the pain. Never dealing with her underlying grief, she became addicted to crack cocaine.

"I didn't know how to process anything that had happened in my life," Hernandez explained. "I needed Jesus 101." Her personal history provided the chance to explain the difference between God's forgiveness and the consequences that must still be endured, sometimes over a lifetime. The women rigorously discussed this seemingly at-odds concept. "It's like when you have to keep dealing with your ex over childcare issues-that's an ongoing consequence," one woman said.


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