Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: For those who may be unfamiliar, what can you tell us about the non-profit organization, Downtown Women’s Center, and what inspired its founding in 1978?
Rachel Kassenbrock: The Downtown Women's Center is the only organization in the Skid Row area exclusively dedicated to addressing the immediate and long-term needs of women overcoming homelessness and poverty. We provide permanent supportive housing as well as services and resources to help women exit the cycle of homelessness and regain personal stability.
The Downtown Women's Center was founded by Jill Halverson, an outreach worker working in Skid Row in the 1970s. Through some of her clients, she befriended Rosa, a woman experiencing homelessness after beginning to experience signs of mental illness that grew more severe throughout her 20s. She was in and out of psychiatric hospitals before ending up in Skid Row.
Unfortunately for Rosa and so many women like her, service providers at the time were unequipped to serve homeless and low-income women and address their basic needs (such as specific healthcare needs, their higher likelihood of having survived trauma than homeless men, unique job-training needs, etc.). As Jill got to know Rosa, she realized the significant dearth of services available to women in Skid Row, and she founded the Downtown Women's Center to provide hot meals, showers, clothing, and a space place for women to rest and build community with one another during the day.
BD: What can share about the individuals involved with Downtown Women’s Center and their efforts towards providing permanent supportive housing and a safe and healthy community for women in Los Angeles’ Skid Row?
RK: We have approximately 100 full-time and part-time staff here at DWC, including case managers, clinicians, kitchen staff, residence managers, maintenance, development, communications, and more. Our work varies, but we share a common goal: ending homelessness for good!
In addition to approximately 100 full-time and part-time staff, DWC had more than 5,000 community members volunteer their time in a variety of capacities here, contributing more than 25,000 hours of service! Our incredible volunteers make our work possible, and DWC staff and the women we serve love the chance to connect with these caring members of our community
BD: What are some of the services available to women through your organization?
RK: We provide 119 units of Permanent Supportive Housing through our two residence buildings in Skid Row. In addition to on-site housing, we work one-on-one with women to connect them with housing throughout Los Angeles County. We serve approximately 200 women a day in our Day Center, where we provide a place to rest, as well as three nutritious, home-cooked meals, and access to clean bathrooms, showers, laundry facilities, and changes of clothes. Our Women's Health Center, the only women-specific clinic in Skid Row, provides primary care, STD/HIV testing, TB and cancer screenings, vaccinations, mammograms, women's exams, and more. We also provide individual and group therapy, as well as trauma recovery services. Our Job Readiness and education programs empower women to overcome barriers to employment and to develop skills needed to succeed.
BD: What are the biggest hurdles in advocating for the end of homelessness for women and in supporting the needs of women who struggle with homelessness and poverty?
RK: For us, one substantial hurdle has been getting policymakers, politicians, and the general public to recognize unaccompanied adult women as a distinct population. Women experiencing homelessness have unique vulnerabilities: for example, they are far more likely than their male counterparts to have survived violence, and they have unique health care and job training needs. We know that by identifying women's specific needs and meeting those needs with services, the numbers experiencing homelessness can be significantly reduced. Over the last year, we've seen women become a much bigger part of the conversation about homelessness, and LA City and County have each taken significant steps to address women's homelessness, which is wonderful!
Another large hurdle is, of course, a lack of available housing. Much of the country is currently in an affordable housing crisis, and LA is among the cities that have been hit hardest. (Currently, the City has a rental vacancy rate of less than 3%.) In Los Angeles, we recently passed Proposition HHH in November, a $1.2 billion housing bond that will fund approximately 10,000 units of affordable housing over the next 10 years. In March, we approved Measure H, a quarter-cent sales tax that will generate around $355 million per year to go toward supportive services for individuals experiencing homelessness, like case management, mental and physical healthcare, and trauma recovery. We're so thrilled to see our community take these exciting steps forward.
BD: How can other individuals get involved with the organization, and what are a few ways that community members can truly make a difference?
RK: We love our volunteers! If you're in the Los Angeles area, we have a number of individual and group volunteer opportunities available on our website. Another way to get involved with DWC is by donating, which makes the work we do every day possible. You can give a one-time donation or pledge a monthly donation. And, of course, you can visit us and see the work we're doing first-hand. You can contact us and arrange a time to tour the Center.
No matter where you are, you can make a difference for women experiencing homelessness by making sure they are a part of the conversation. When reading news stories about homelessness, make note of how frequently women are mentioned.
BD: Are there any other fundraising events or activities that you are currently working on that you would like to share with our readers?
RK: We operate a social enterprise, MADE by DWC, which aims to break the cycles of chronic homelessness and unemployment by empowering women to discover talents and develop skills through vocational opportunities. Through our Café & Gift Boutique and Resale Store, we sell handmade candles, soaps, ornaments, and other unique items created in collaboration between DWC program participants and community artists. By purchasing MADE products, you contribute to breaking the cycles of chronic unemployment and homelessness for women in the Skid Row community. You can learn more and shop online at MADE's website.
Our annual fundraising gala will take place in October, and we occasionally run fundraising campaigns on our social media pages. You can hang out with us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @DWCweb.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell readers who want to learn more about Downtown Women’s Center?
RK: If you have a question about DWC that wasn't answered here, you may be able to find it on our website: www.DowntownWomensCenter.org. If you have specific questions for me, you can reach me at RachelK (at) DowntownWomensCenter (dot) org.
If you have a volunteer opportunity or an important cause that could use the assistance of a few geeks, please email the details to barbra (at) fanbasepress (dot) com.