Norwich - Bethsaida Community Inc. has marked the one-year anniversary of the nonprofit agency's ambitious five-year, $1.75 million federally funded Homeless Women Deserve Treatment program by making another longtime dream come true.
Bethsaida Community last week moved into the former St. Joseph's Convent on Cliff Street that stands across the street from the agency's Katie Blair House for formerly homeless women and the adjacent Flora O'Neil Apartments for women.
"This is heaven for us," said Bethsaida Executive Director Claire Silva.
The nonprofit agency has signed a three-year lease with the St. Joseph's Polish Roman Catholic Church Congregation for the entire building and grounds. It's the perfect setting for the agency's management offices, a new home for the homeless women's outreach program and a second floor of impeccable dorm rooms - already furnished with twin beds and dressers - for women who aren't yet financially or personally ready to strike out on their own again.
"We couldn't ask for anything better," Silva said. "Before, we had three different spots scattered through downtown. Now, we're together. The women can support other women, and the staff can support the staff."
Bethsaida plans to host an open house at the convent Thursday afternoon to show the historic building and unveil plans to neighbors, St. Joseph's parishioners, city officials and the more than 150 women being served in the Homeless Women Deserve Treatment program.
The move culminates an eventful year for Bethsaida. In the summer of 2010 the small agency that provides housing and programs to formerly homeless women received a five-year, $350,000 per year federal grant from the little-known U.S. Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration to reach out to 545 homeless women in New London County and try to improve their lives.
According to the one-year report sent to the federal agency, Bethsaida contacted 261 women and worked with 158 women during the first year - surpassing the goal of 150. The group found housing for 133 of them, including 23 still in shelters, helped 50 women obtain jobs and referred 67 women for health care at partner agency United Community and Family Services in Norwich.
"I'm doing really good," said Sarah Gamache, one of the first clients to come to the Homeless Women Deserve Treatment grant program. "I've lost 30 pounds. I'm content with my job. I come home tired and sore, but it's good. I'm hoping to lose more weight by this."
In 2010, Gamache lost her job and then her house in Norwich to foreclosure. She was at the Covenant Shelter in New London when someone repossessed her car, with her last possessions in the trunk. Her mouth was filled with infected teeth. That's when she learned about HWDT and asked for help.
Within weeks, case manager Eva Vega helped her get dental appointments to have her teeth pulled and be fitted with dentures, helped find donated clothing so she could go on job interviews and accompanied her to trials and training at her new job in hotel housekeeping at Foxwoods Resort Casino. Gamache got lucky again in getting one of the coveted room openings at Katie Blair House.
Now, she's ready to graduate from the supervised program, but can't just yet afford her own apartment.
"I would love to come over here!" Gamache said last week as she climbed the convent stairway to the second floor. She and two other Katie Blair residents were among the first clients to see the new convent setting as agency officials just completed moving the offices and getting phones and computers hooked up.
Silva and HWDT Program Manager Eileen Normandin had asked Katie Blair residents to volunteer to help move furnishings and get ready for Thursday's open house.
The three paused to check out the dorm rooms and pick their favorites.
Rebecca Foster opened doors and picked a room that had shelves in the closet.
"This is really nice," she said. "This would be a lot of help to a lot of women."
Not so fast, Silva said. Bethsaida was approved by city inspectors to move its program offices into the first floor. But the agency cannot occupy the seven dorm rooms on the second floor until a fire alarm system is installed. The rippled hallway carpet and a few buckled room floors must be replaced. Silva also hopes to receive donations to buy all new twin mattresses, sheets with matching comforters and new curtains for the large wood-framed windows, a main feature in every room.
There is one larger bedroom that won't be opened just yet. Silva said that in the future, it could be used for a woman with a child - something Bethsaida has never done. Residents share bedrooms in the much more supervised Katie Blair House. The agency also owns the permanent apartments for women next door at the Flora O'Neil Apartments.
Time for a new name
The convent - which will get a new name - would serve Katie Blair graduates ready for some independent living. The women would pay rent, which would help pay for the building lease and perhaps a case manager to keep in touch with the women. The large kitchen and sitting rooms and dining rooms on the first and second floors would be open for their common use.
The third floor will be off-limits to anything but storage, because there is no fire escape, Silva said.
Outside, volunteers already have started clearing overgrown brush from the quiet, private terraced yard. An arched stone grotto in the back corner also will be cleared of vines and brush.
"This place has good vibes to it," said Jessica Buhler.
Buhler has lived at the Katie Blair House for one month. She lost her longtime family home built by her grandfather in Taftville to foreclosure.
"My mother's ashes and my brother's ashes are buried in that backyard," she said. Her husband left her and she was forced to give up her cats and one dog.
Buhler said Bethsaida helped give her a new outlook, and she enjoys volunteering to help clean the convent.
"It's going great," she said of her month association with the agency.
At the HWDT office, program coordinator Donie Jarmon was on the phone speaking to clients, reminding them of appointments and just checking in. Jarmon has regular rounds at downtown spots frequented by homeless women, trying to make and keep contact with them.
Jarmon nodded her head and smiled when asked about Kristin DeShong, a troubled 26-year-old woman trying to overcome poverty, heroin addiction, a shoplifting arrest and a boyfriend with chronic medical problems.
"Kristin is doing a lot better," Jarmon said. "She's a lot more positive. If I don't talk to her every day, I see her every other day."
DeShong said her main focus right now is to get "everything ready" for the birth of her baby in three months. She and her boyfriend, Cornell Palmer, moved into a larger room in the apartment they share and are starting to equip it for the baby.
DeShong is on probation and is doing community service work at the St. Vincent de Paul Place soup kitchen. She has stayed drug free, she said, although the pregnancy has made her quite sick at times.
DeShong also looks forward to visiting Jarmon at her new office.
"I haven't seen it yet. I'm going there this weekend," she said.