If the walls of Evelyn’s House could talk, they would surely say, “We provide a sense of safety and security where it doesn’t matter what happened in the past, we’re always going to open our arms and take care of you.”
For young and homeless women who are pregnant, parenting, or both, Evelyn’s House is Utica’s safe harbor for mothers—providing both transitional and rapid rehousing. Always safe and compassionate, it meets the needs of those dealing with pregnancy, motherhood, and other challenges, including those living with the threat of eviction or domestic violence, on the streets, or in an emergency shelter.
For many years advocates pointed to a service gap in the Utica area for expectant and young mothers facing difficult circumstances. In 2007 the late Donna Latour-Elefante, founder and executive director of the Family Nurturing Center, sought to fill that void. Naming it after her mother, she established Evelyn’s House, the only transitional housing for pregnant or parenting teens in the area.
A part of Integrated Community Alternatives Network (ICAN), Evelyn’s House continues to fulfill Latour-Elefante’s founding vision. No matter the difficult circumstances young women face, they can stay at the space for up to two years. During their stay, residents receive intensive case management, including evidence-based parenting and other classes to prepare them for employment, in addition to nutrition, health and wellness, mental health services, and guidance toward permanent housing.
“We really want to prepare them to be successful living on their own with their child or children,” says Allison Jackson, ICAN’s chief program officer. “We want them to become empowered during this transitional time in their lives.”
Having a roof over their heads and a safe place to stay allows young mothers to return to school or find employment. Evelyn’s House has a partnership with the Workforce Investment Board that takes them through job training and placement, with a goal of long-term employment.
Helping these young women often presents unique challenges.
“Because it’s a shelter, all the women who come to Evelyn’s House are homeless, threatened with homelessness, or fleeing domestic violence,” Jackson says. “These young women come to us with significant trauma history. Not only that, but they’re trying to parent. They’re either pregnant and scared and getting ready to have a child, or they’re currently parenting and carry all of these other stresses on their shoulders.”
While it can be a challenging time for some of the women, in some cases it’s the first time they’ve felt safe and secure at home. Past trauma can make for a difficult transition, but Jackson says that the women using these services are some of the most resilient individuals she’s ever worked with. From that place of safety and security, they’re able to work on other things, like life skills that they need to live independently and successfully with their children.
As moms get ready to complete their stay, they’re able to transition into permanent housing. This “rapid rehousing” program allows Evelyn’s House to cover the first several months of rent, with moms gradually taking on that responsibility as their economic situation stabilizes. And the program includes more than just rental assistance; two years of case management help can make a real difference for those just starting out.
In keeping with ICAN’s organizational philosophy, “family voice, family choice,” Evelyn’s House balances its rules and expectations for residents with the importance of hearing from young women who are adapting to significant life changes. Weekly house meetings provide a structure that does just that.
“We all sit in the living room in a circle with the kids running around, and it’s their chance to have a voice,” Jackson says. “The staff have a list and all the residents have a list of any concerns or anything they want to talk about or changes they feel need to be made to the program. It really is their chance to voice their opinion.”
The partnership between Evelyn’s House and the Community Foundation has been crucial to the program and dates back to its founding as part of the Family Nurturing Center.
“We’ve been super lucky and grateful for all the help that the Community Foundation has provided,” says Jackson. “The beauty of our relationship is that the Community Foundation will reach out to us and ask, ‘What are your needs?’”
Many donor-advised funds have supported Evelyn’s House for over a decade. In addition to general support, the Margarets Gaffney & Van Waes Fund has helped the organization with more immediate needs—funding a life skills coordinator staff position, a kitchen remodel, and all new cribs—and the Charles A. Gaetano Family Fund has also made several grants as well.
Thanks to generous donor support, dedicated staff and ICAN’s guidance, Evelyn’s House continues to realize Latour-Elefante’s dream: a more homelike, less institutional setting for our community’s young mothers and moms-to-be facing extraordinary challenges.