By Andrea Ball
Several months after the death of a homeless woman in a downtown Austin park, local churches have united to provide emergency shelter for up to 50 single, homeless females each night.
“I’ve never seen a project come together like this one,” said Irit Umani, executive director of the Trinity Center, which provides services to homeless people. “Everyone stepped in beautifully.”
Families and children have more options available for emergency housing, about 250 beds per night. But single women don’t qualify for those beds.
The quest for additional emergency shelter for single females began in June, when 34-year-old Valerie Godoy was found dead on a bench at Duncan Park. An autopsy concluded that Godoy, who was homeless, died of “significant blunt force trauma.”
Homeless advocacy groups immediately began calling for action. House the Homeless initiated a petition drive that ultimately collected 3,700 signatures. That petition was presented to the city’s Human Rights Commission, said Richard Troxell, executive director of House the Homeless.
Meanwhile other community groups, including the Salvation Army and the Trinity Center, began brainstorming ways to quickly provide a safe space for women.
Emergency shelter for single women has always been limited, Umani said. Homeless advocacy groups say they don’t know what the need is because they regularly turn people away and some never come back.
This month, they launched Safe Sleep Shelter for Women, a 10-week pilot program in which five downtown and university-area churches provide shelter every night from 8:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. Participants have to register every week to ensure a spot. Program organizers are still trying to determine what will happen to the program after the pilot period.
The participating churches are St. David’s Episcopal, First Baptist, St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, University Baptist, and First United Methodist, Umani said.
St. David’s, whose parishioners founded the Trinity Center, signed on to the project as soon as they were approached by Umani, said the Rev. David Boyd. “She didn’t even get a sentence out of her mouth before I knew what she was saying, and the answer was yes,” he said.
While the churches are donating their space and volunteers, there is some cost to the program, Umani said. It will cost about $17,000 to provide a security officer and shelter coordinator over the 10 weeks. That money was provided by private donors, the City of Austin and the Religious Coalition to Assist the Homeless, Umani said.
Ann Howard, executive director for the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, has volunteered multiple times at St. Martin’s since the program was launched. The women, she said, have been respectful of the space, clean it regularly and support each other.
“The women are just amazing to me,” Howard said. “As vulnerable as they are to danger, they are resilient and strong.”
To volunteer, contact Foundation for the Homeless at 453-6570.