Sister Nancy Chiarello, O.S.F., reflects back with mixed emotions as The Dwelling Place of New York marked its 40th anniversary this month.
“I always think back when we say we’re here 40 years. Part of me becomes saddened by it, because the fact is we’re needed 40 years later,” Sister Nancy told CNY. “But then I have to look at the positive side of it, which is for 40 years God has been very good to us.”
The Dwelling Place has been a home to about 3,000 homeless women since opening its door on Oct. 4, 1977 with a mission of “leading women from homeless to home.”
Sister Nancy was one of five Franciscan Sisters of Allegany working as nurses at St. Clare’s Hospital in Manhattan. From their apartment, they would see homeless women search for food in garbage cans and eventually asked the leaders of their congregation for approval to open a homeless shelter for women.
“When we started, I thought we’d be here a couple of years and the problem would be settled. Forty years later, the problems are worse,” said Sister Nancy, who remembered the shelter housing up to 60 homeless women on cold nights back in the early days.
“Forty years ago, I remember going down to the Department of Homeless Services because they wanted to know what the need was. Forty years ago, the need was affordable housing. Forty years later, the need is still affordable housing. Every mayor, every governor has always promised to do something about it and nothing has been done.”
The Dwelling Place, which has included members of 10 religious orders on its staff over the 40 years, is located in the former convent for St. Clemens Mary parish on West 40th Street in Manhattan. The building is owned by the archdiocese, and The Dwelling Place is a Catholic Charities agency.
The Dwelling Place is funded by private donations, some from long-time donors. The staff and board of directors keep busy filling out grant applications in hopes of receiving funding.
“The challenge is to meet the expenses of this day,” said Sister Joann Sambs, C.S.A, administrator of The Dwelling Place. “We’ve been blessed, but it’s an everyday job to make sure we’re able to sustain our ministry here.”
The Dwelling Place has 14 beds, with a 10-person staff and 12 volunteers. A homeless woman seeking assistance initially goes through a phone interview. If the phone interview goes well, she is interviewed face-to-face before a decision is made to accept her.
Once accepted, the homeless woman will move into The Dwelling Place where she will be prepared for life after the shelter. Full-time staffers Sister Patricia Ginty, O.P., and Sister Nancy are caseworkers as is Sister Mary Echo Perry, C.D.P., a part-time staff member.
“My experience has been the majority of the women did have jobs with residence before they lost their job,” Sister Joann said. “Everything spiraled down after that. They’re probably the most vulnerable when they come here because they never expected it to happen to them, so they do not know how to handle being on the street.”
On average, a resident will be back on her own in six to 12 months. Depending on her individual situation, she may reside at The Dwelling Place for less than six months or more than 12 months.
The residents are out of shelter from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, either working or receiving the help needed to get back on their feet. Breakfast and dinner are offered at the shelter, and residents may take something for lunch. The curfew is 6 p.m., but is flexible if say a resident works past 6 p.m.
A third of a resident’s monthly income is held by The Dwelling Place to return to the resident when she is ready to move back on her own.
“With money management, they’ve saved enough when they have found a room, they have a month’s rent, month’s security and a little extra to buy things they want,” Sister Nancy said. “So, it’s not a big burden when they move out of here to come up with that money. They have it.”
A 40th anniversary appeal and an annual Fall Gala Oct. 19 were this year’s fund-raisers for The Dwelling Place. On Nov. 12, a Mass of Thanksgiving will be celebrated at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Manhattan at 2:30 p.m., followed by a reception.
The staff is preparing The Dwelling Place for a challenging future, one where fewer sisters may be available to operate the ministry, and younger committed staffers/volunteers and new avenues of financial support will be needed.
“We’ll go on with the grace of God and try to respond to the needs as they arise,” Sister Patricia said.