Most people, I am guessing, have never heard about the Drake House or what it does. Or perhaps they have only some vague idea involving a shelter.
In one sense, it is a shelter but that is not the half of it. The Drake House gives women with minor children a place to turn when they have nowhere else to turn. The Drake House does more than give these women a respite. Kathy Swahn, executive director of Drake House, sees firsthand what these women have gone through.
She says they tell her much the same story.
First, they think this would never happen to them – that they would be homeless. They used to live in your neighborhood. Their kids go to school with your kids. Then life rips the rug out from under and now they are starting over – ground zero.
How does it happen? Every story is unique and every story is the same, Swahn said. A recession comes and takes away your job. Your husband leaves. Whatever the cause, it’s now just you and the kids.
You lose the house and sleep in your car. If you’re lucky, relatives or friends take in the kids. If you’re not, you wind up in an extended stay hotel. Then you hear about a lifeline – maybe it was at church. Or your child’s counselor at school recommends you. Anyway, you go to the Drake House.
Yes, they offer you shelter, but it is much more than that. They offer you hope. And it is hope with a plan. And armed with that plan and some determination, it gets you back on your feet. When these women leave, nearly all are working again with a new place of their own.
The Drake House provides short-term crisis housing – about 90 days. While there, the staff does an assessment for the mom to establish some options that will get her employed and saving money. If the moms need skills, they teach them.
The Drake House has what it calls its Empowerment Program. It is well crafted with a dose of tough love and lots of support to get these women working again. They must remain drug- and alcohol-free to stay, and they must find work.
Meanwhile, their children stay in their same schools, so those connections remain solid. In 2012, the Drake House provided 13,760 bed nights. Those are heads sleeping on pillows. At last count, 256 families have been helped since the doors opened in 2006.
At the Drake House Volunteer Appreciation Dinner last month, I was invited because I have covered the Drake House story from the beginning. Its genesis came out of a Leadership North Fulton project. The number of homeless women and children in North Fulton is staggering.
So Drake House must make tough decisions. They can’t afford to take in families who do not have a good chance to recover and become self-sufficient. No alcohol or drugs are allowed on the property. Neither are men.
This is about getting mind, body and soul together, and the women quickly understand that or they are gone.
So I went to the dinner knowing I would have to listen to the testimonials of some recent graduates. It hurts to listen to how life deals such cruel blows. One woman had to flee an abusive relationship with only her clothes on her back.
Another was a graduate of the University of Florida and had lost a teaching job. Another had the big five-bedroom house and a job as a nonprofit executive, then the nonprofit lost its funding in the recession and her husband had a stroke.
The stories went on of sleeping on floors for a year. One daughter, instead of going to school, would get up at 5 a.m. to ride MARTA to answer job ads. But every story intersected when they came to the Drake House with its trained staff and support volunteers. For each, it was the signature turning point.
One daughter told how on that first night, there were clean sheets on the bed, toiletries in the bathroom and a refrigerator full of food.
Once the mothers have a stable environment again, they can turn their full attention to regaining self-sufficiency. The vast majority of the families do just that. As one mother put it, “It was a chance to catch my breath.”
So I think the best term for the Drake House is a haven. It’s a place where women can take stock, make a plan and go forward. Now they are not alone anymore. There is a team behind her that will do all they can to assist her to find that stability.
And so I heard their stories – the moms and the children. What impressed me most was their excitement at being back. Back from what? I look for a word to describe what they had known, and I found it. They were back from despair, utter and complete despair. And now they had faced it and won.
So it was no wonder these volunteers were there that night. These stories were their reward, the tangible results of their efforts and emotional investment in the lives of these women.
And let me say one thing about the women who come to the Drake House. They are strong, strong people. I don’t know that I could get up off the ground after being knocked flat the way some of these ladies were.
I am amazed at what these mothers do to turn their lives around in a relatively short amount of time. But they can do it because the Drake House is there for them. So my hat is off to all those staff and volunteers who work so hard – quietly, almost anonymously – to make the Drake House what it is. A place where families come back to life.