Article written by Lisa Lerner
It all began as an empty warehouse in Park Slope. Soup was served during the day; cots were set up for those with no place to sleep at night. It was 1990. When Sister Mary Maloney took over, there was a mere $200 in the bank and the building’s owner was on the verge of selling. Not exactly ideal circumstances, but she rose to the challenge. Somehow, against the tough odds of our busy city, she got the money for a downpayment to buy the building, and CHIPS was kept alive.
After hearing about the work CHiPS was doing, Brad Lander – at the time executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee – helped secure a state grant of nearly $1 million to pay off the mortgage, renovate the building, and build the current commercial soup kitchen and the Frances Residence.
Eventually, the residence was able to hire three full-time staff members five days a week. But when the funding dried up, the program, which provides housing and support for nine homeless moms and their babies, reverted to being run by volunteers.
Currently, there are no full-time staff members, but Denise Scaravella, the executive director of CHIPS, is hopeful: “We’ve been running the residence for 23 years and somehow we just keep moving along, one small miracle at a time.” Over the years, the residence has served over 200 women and their children.
Helping homeless moms get back on their feet
The young women are at a vulnerable life juncture, and they are often scared; it’s a natural impulse to want to comfort and reassure them. But the rules at the residence are strict: “We aren’t doing them any favors if we let them slip and slide,” Denise says. Getting the mothers to be independent and able to care for their families is the primary goal. Computer access, internships, career guidance, therapy and child care are just some of the benefits the women receive. Each apartment has a kitchen and cleaning supplies, and the young moms are encouraged to learn how to cook and clean for themselves and their family as if they were in their own home.
One of the main pillars of the program is the weekly house meetings in the shared lounge. Although they began as a mandatory check-in on Wednesday nights, they’ve turned into a smorgasbord of self-improvement workshops run by local professionals. The first part of the meeting is a chance for the women to share how they’re doing, what progress they’re making toward their goals, and any concerns. The next hour and a half is spent concentrating on important life and job skills.
Ordinary women doing extraordinary things
The residence offers so much to young women during an overwhelming time in their lives. A new baby turns even the most ordered and comfortable life upside down. To be homeless, jobless and uncertain about the future with a newborn requires a bravery and focus that not many possess. The young mothers of the Frances Residence are ordinary women trying to do extraordinary things. Everyone who works with them agrees that funding to support a solid, full-time staff would give the young mothers the security and continuity they need to create a stable life for themselves when they leave.
“We do what we can with what we have,” Denise says. “Of course, if I had $50,000, I could create an infant care program so the moms could go to work or job hunt full time. If I had $35,000, I could replace our old, drafty windows and make the building energy efficient. But good things are happening for us every day. I’m confident people will want to help.”