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A house for homeless women

OUR years ago when Juanita, a soft-spoken young mother in Boston, fled from her abusive husband, she assumed she and her children would soon find their own apartment. But her income as a cashier at Kentucky Fried Chicken was modest, rents were high, and waiting lists for public housing were years long. As weeks stretched into months and months into years, the family bounced from one relative to another. Finally, their only remaining refuge was a shelter for homeless women and children.

``There's a lot of discrimination against women with children,'' says Juanita, who asked to be identified only by her first name. ``As soon as you tell a landlord you have kids, or you're divorced, or on welfare, the tune changes. They either want professional people or students. Sometimes it makes you want to stop trying, because you feel the odds are against you.''

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During her nine weeks at the shelter, Juanita heard about Horizons, a new transitional housing program for homeless women and their children. Sponsored by the Women's Educational and Industrial Union (WEIU), a century-old social service agency here, the model project gives six women stable housing for up to two years while they train for suitable employment and strive for economic independence.

Juanita applied for admission and, after interviews with staff members and other residents, was accepted. In June she and her four children moved into two rooms of Horizons' three-story, 22-room house on the southern edge of Boston.

As the number of female-headed households increases, women like Juanita constitute a growing, if largely invisible, group. Almost half of all poor families in America are headed by women. With limited education, few marketable skills, inadequate housing, and no child care, they may find themselves caught in an endless cycle of homelessness and poverty. Most emergency shelters can give only temporary housing, and few offer employment-training programs for residents or clients.

``A big part of what we do is provide women with the time and resources to develop long-term plans,'' says Lorraine Lafata, program advocate of Horizons. ``We're interested in helping them recognize that they have some power and control over their lives. They need to ask themselves, `How am I going to get money? What do I want to do? How do I want to raise my children?' ''

Helen Strickland, Horizons' house manager, understands well the challenges the women and their children face. Divorced after ``a lot of battering,'' she raised six children alone.

``I've lived in a shelter,'' Mrs. Strickland says, ``so I know what the women are going through. And I know what the children are going through even more than their mothers do, I think. The kids here need a lot of support. It's not that the mother doesn't want to give it -- she just has so much on her mind. She's worried about where the money is coming from, and she's trying to better herself so she'll be able to take care of her kids. By the time she does all that during the day and gets home in the ev ening, it's just too much sometimes to be able to sit down and read a story or give a hug. She may not know how to and tell her child, `I'm really trying, and I still love you.' ''

One of the newest residents, Betty, who arrived in September after 19 months in shelters and welfare hotels, already sees the effects of Horizons' supportive atmosphere on her three preteen children.

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``My kids have been better here than anywhere else, and more relaxed,'' she says. ``It's more like a home than a shelter.''

The impetus for Horizons came a decade ago when representatives from local emergency and battered-women shelters, concerned about the lack of affordable housing in the city, gathered to seek solutions.

In 1983, after a lengthy search for public and private funding and a suitable building, WEIU obtained a once-grand, 19th-century house, which it rents from the city for $1 a year. Inmates from a nearby prison stripped lead paint from woodwork and refinished floors during renovation of the house. Local hotels donated furniture. The first residents moved in seven months ago.

Although a handful of transitional housing programs exist around the country -- among them Warren Village in Denver; Women Emerging in Minneapolis; The Haven in Rockland County, N.Y.; and Crossway Community in Bethesda, Md. -- a need for others is urgent, social workers say.

``As long as women are living in temporary crisis settings, they are not able to devote the energy necessary for economic and vocational development,'' says Mary Jo Steckevicz, director of social services for WEIU.

Janice Moore, information and referral coordinator of the National Coalition against Domestic Violence in Washington, D.C., agrees. ``Housing, a job, and child care are three main needs for those leaving a battered home,'' she says. ``If domestic-violence programs are really going to meet the needs of battered women, we've got to look at those three areas and see what kind of assistance we can give women.''

At Horizons, that assistance includes career guidance, individual counseling, and group workshops on money management, housing, nutrition, child-rearing, and assertiveness-training.

``One woman, if she hadn't asserted herself, would have been cheated out of a free day-care slot,'' Miss Lafata says. ``Because she got it, she could still go to school.''

She also notes other progressive steps.

``Most of the women have opened a bank account, which they've never had before,'' she says. ``And some are getting up at 5 or 6 a.m. to get ready for school or jobs, when they were used to sleeping until 12 or 1. We're talking about major turnarounds.''

And the challenges?

``It's just not easy to live in a group,'' Miss Lafata says.

To minimize problems and keep the house running smoothly, residents hold weekly meetings to discuss rules, schedules, and ideas. ``They call it a gripe session,'' Mrs. Strickland says with a laugh. ``We call it a support-group session.''

For the directors, the biggest problem is understaffing. ``When you're funded like we are,'' Miss Lafata says, ``you just don't have money. And trying to find volunteers is not as easy as it used to be.''

Yet their efforts are already paying off. Several residents are working toward high school diplomas or graduate equivalency degrees (GED). One has begun nurse's training. Another has found a job and permanent housing.

For Juanita, after 41/2 years of homelessness, stability no longer seems an impossible dream. She now works part time as a secretary-receptionist at Roxbury Community College and is taking a word-processing course at the school to earn an associate's degree. She has hopes of getting a $314-a-week job as a word processor, then finding an apartment for her family.

Until then, she says, ``I think all of us are fortunate to be here. It's really what homeless women need. They need the support of people and they need workshops. It's a chance to build up the self-esteem we've lost over the years.''

Betty, the new resident, nods her head in agreement. ``It gives you a chance to get on your feet,'' she says. ``There should be a lot more places like this.''

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