Leslie Foster Offers Hope At The Gathering Place
In 2010 Denver's only daytime homeless shelter for women and children, The Gathering Place, totaled nearly 90,000 visits. The shelter in City Park West is the city's only daytime refuge specifically catered to women and children.
The shelter's CEO, Leslie Foster, has been at The Gathering Place since 1990, just 4 years after its founding by two University of Denver, School of Social Work graduate students
"We hold hope for the people we serve when they cannot hold it themselves. We do not believe that we need to fix their lives; to say that is to imply that they are broken. They are not," Foster says.
The Gathering Place provides things like a hot breakfast, showers, laundry facilities, and use of a food pantry for groceries. There are volunteer hairdressers so women can get a fresh haircut, perhaps primping for a job interview. Women can also talk to the center's resource advocates for assistance with legal issues, housing and job referrals, and help accessing food stamps or healthcare.
Computer labs help women stay connected with technology and job opportunities.
"I had a great mentor in undergraduate school who taught me about Community Psychology, which is a concept seldom heard of or not discussed anymore," Foster says. "The essential element is that rather than try to fix individuals to fit into a community, we should try to fix communities to be more inclusive of a wide variety of individuals. When we recognize the the strength of all individuals and the contributions that each of us make, communities become better places to live--they become a place to belong, a place to feel safe, invested, and worthwhile."
Foster, at her 20 year celebration with The Gathering Place.
One of the center's more creative methods of empowerment is their Card Project. In this program, groups of women create hand-painted cards which are sold for $2.00 at The Gathering Place and Denver outlets like the Tattered Cover Book Store, Cake Crumbs, the gift shop at the National Jewish Hospital, and others. The women receive $1.50 for each card that is sold.
"We have incredibly talented artists who can find a sense of self-esteem in producing something of value. It can be transformative to think of yourself and to be referred to by others as an artist instead of a homeless person," Foster says.
The Huffington Post asked Leslie Foster some questions about life at The Gathering Place:
HP: What is the importance of a daytime shelter, in contrast to an overnight shelter?
LF: A day center in general, and The Gathering Place in particular, has the goal of giving people a safe place to go during the day to get off the streets. In Denver, our overnight shelters typically close during the day so people have to leave. In addition to warmth and safety, a day center gives people the opportunity to use their daytime hours productively instead of losing their time to street survival.
Without The Gathering Place, women and children who are homeless would spend their days moving from place to place seeking shelter from the elements and finding essential items, such as food and diapers. There would be few opportunities for them to access basic services, such as a safe place for their kids to play and to nap, bathing and laundry facilities. They would have to find educational programs, jobs, job training programs, and child care without a phone, without bus tokens, without a computer, a fax, and copier, and without access to the resources offered by our staff and by the other women who come here. They would not have the time or the place to rest, regroup, and find their inner strengths and their creativity.
HP: Why has The Gathering Place been important to you?
LF: Because every day I learn something and usually the "something" is about me. I've learned to appreciate the gifts that I offer - a sense of family and stability, humor and a positive perspective, a thoughtful and goal-oriented approach to life, education and achievements, and compassion. I've also learned where I am lacking - the ability to ask for help, to more gracefully accept change, and an overly high need to control, even when things are out of my control.
Working at The Gathering Place has undoubtedly made me a better person. I am kinder. I have a broader perspective on the world. I am more aware of the value of diversity from all walks of life. Every day I see what happens when a huge variety of people come together around what we have in common and what we can do together. Over 20 years later, I am still in awe of how small interactions change people and change communities. Every day I get to see the best of who we are and who we can be.
HP: What is a common misconception or myth about women in homelessness?
LF: One of the most common myths about women in homelessness is that they don't exist or that they exist in relatively small numbers. In January of 2009, a Point in Time Study found that on any given night in Denver there are about 11,000 people who are homeless and about 42% are women - well over 4,000 people. Families - parents and children - make up the greatest majority of people who are homeless for the first time.
I think that there are two big reasons why this myth perpetuates. First, women don't typically look like the public perception of "homeless." In fact, they often work quite hard at not "looking the part." Women are at very high risk on the streets so it is in part a matter of safety to look like they belong. We are trained early on in life to blend in so we are hopefully less likely to be victims of harassment or violence. Women also often want to look good for their self-esteem, to be an example for their children, to get jobs, and to fit in to society in general.
Second, I think that the general public doesn't want to believe that there are vast numbers of homeless women out there - it's simply too painful for us. We are deeply connected to mothers and sisters and aunties and it's hard for us to manage the thought that someone is out there that could be "one of us" and is homeless. So when we see a woman walking down the street pushing a stroller, we just don't assume that the person is homeless. We assume that they are going somewhere and have someplace to live - a family, a place. Women are a stabilizing force in communities and to think of them drifting is unfathomable for many of us. So homeless women easily become quite invisible.
HP: What are some stories of success at The Gathering Place?
LF: Sometimes we might be surprised by what triggers success or an accomplishment. I did some public speaking with a woman who had been at a shelter for over a year and had just obtained permanent housing. I asked her what the single most important factor was for her to get into housing and she said, "A haircut. I came to The Gathering Place and got a great haircut. It was the first time in a long time that I realized that I was worthy of decent housing. After that, I started doing what I needed to do. Things fell into place and I finally have a permanent place to live." This woman comes in on a rare occasion these days. She went through the process to get Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and with her regular income, classes in money management, and support from her friends at The Gathering Place and elsewhere, she has now been housed for a year and even owns a car. She's also started a group at her housing complex for people who have recently become housed. "We need to learn what it means to be housed now and we need to support each other," she told me. "We need to spend time together and we need to get over our guilt that we're housed and some of our friends are not."