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Downtown Women's Center serves as 'safe haven' for thousands of Skid Row homeless

By Hayley Fox
Published: Monday, December 10, 2012, at 07:41AM
Mae Ryan/KPCC

Donna lives on the streets, but frequents the Downtown Women's Center during the day to get food and volunteer at the center.

This post is part of KPCC's "Season's Givings" series, chronicling volunteer experiences  and opportunities during the holiday season. View a full listing of charitable organizations seeking help this season and let us know your holiday volunteer story!

The Downtown Women’s Center (DWC) has been serving homeless women on Skid Row since 1978 -- providing warm meals and hot showers, medical services, computer labs, educational opportunities and long-term housing options.

Last year the center had about 2,500 volunteers to help with everything from sorting clothing donations to cooking meals and teaching classes. But women are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population and the center served more than 4,300 just last year, so they are always looking for volunteer help.

Steven Alvarez has worked at the center since 2008 and is now the senior volunteer engagement coordinator. He says most of the DWC's programs depend largely on commitment of volunteers, and that 75 percent of the time it is the volunteers who work directly with the women.

"They are the ones teaching the workshops, they are the ones facilitating shopping days with them, they are the ones mentoring them... so if they don’t show up, then we don’t have that class or we don’t have that service for the day,” he said.

Many of the homeless women that visit the center have been victims of abuse or sexual assault, and have physical or mental complications that can make living on the street even more challenging.

Cheryl Willard has been visiting the Women’s Center for 13 years. She doesn't live there, but did just apply to live at the Center's newly opened, renovated housing complex on Los Angeles Street.

Willard was a victim of domestic violence and fled her Massachusetts home. Lately, she’s been staying at a Skid Row mission and visiting the women’s center during the day – a place she calls a “safe haven.”

"I can’t say enough about this place," Willard said with tears in her eyes. "They taught me working skills, I learned to make jewelry, candles, there’s been journals and they’ve been put in the shop and sold so... yippee! I’ve had a little money in the sack here."

The jewelry and candles Willard learned to make is part of the Women’s Center Set to Create program – a popular series of workshops that teach the women how to make candles, soap, journals and other handmade goods that are sold at the DWC boutiques along with outside retail locations like Bloomingdale's. The women not only learn a craft and skill, but make a portion of the profits from their projects.

The Women's Center just recently opened a new vintage resale boutique in Downtown where they feature these handmade goods -- alongside designer coats, jeans, shoes and jewelry.

Latoya Hawthorne is one of the Set to Create teachers. The 27-year-old photographer and model started at the women’s center as a volunteer and just recently got hired onto their paid staff.

Before she started working at the center on a regular basis, Hawthorne had little experience with Skid Row and like many, was intimidated to walk down many of the area's streets. But she has done a "complete 180" since her time at the DWC. She said, "being part of the community, helping the community, I talk to these ladies on a daily basis and it opens my eyes on a much broader level."

Hawthorne said she's now close with many of the women; they know her by name, notice when she changes her hair color and feel comfortable enough to talk to her about their life and relationships.

Consistency is key when volunteering, said Hawthorne.

"Sometimes there’s volunteer turnaround where people come every now and then, but I think if they [the women] keep seeing the same person coming over and over they develop a bond with them and a trust," said Hawthorne. "It’s not just like giving someone money and not knowing where it goes to.”

Although the Women’s Center does see a spike in volunteers during the holiday season, they welcome the help any time of the year.

"I think a lot of people associate the holidays with giving back which is really great for us," said Katie Slack, DWC's community and corporate engagement coordinator. "We really try to be creative with connecting volunteers with not only what their interest is but where their skills are and then what our needs are."

Volunteers must be 18 or older and fill out an application but other than those requirements, Slack said they always try to find a place at the DWC for volunteers.

Anyone interested in volunteering should attend a new volunteer orientation and tour on December 15, followed by a volunteer training session on Dec. 19.


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