Former parish gets new life helping the homeless

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By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Where there was once a place that sermonized the Good News to feed, clothe and house souls in need, there is now a place practicing what once was preached as the former rectory of St. Hedwig’s Parish in New Bedford has been transformed into Grace House, a transitional housing program for single, homeless women, while the former church is currently under construction to become the new location of the Sister Rose House, a shelter for homeless men, and the soup kitchen run by the Catholic Social Services.

When Ed Allard, project manager for Community Action for Better Housing, decided to purchase St. Hedwig’s Church as the new location for the Sister Rose House, he walked through the rectory and he immediately saw the potential for a second project. It was in great shape, said Allard, though moderate renovations would be needed, and he reached out to the city of New Bedford, which provided all the funding through the city of New Bedford’s Office Housing and Community Development, ultimately giving $278,505 in federal HOME funds for the endeavor.

“The city really stepped up,” said Allard. “We explained to them what we had in mind for the property — to create a transitional housing program for homeless, single adult women. The idea of transitional housing is just that, to transition them into a stable setting and give them the support that they need to move on to permanent, affordable housing.”

Grace House was 100 percent funded by the city, said Allard, adding “we owe a debt of gratitude to Pat Sullivan [director] of the Office of Housing and Community Development and his staff.”

Though there were a few hiccups, like replacing the furnace, “there weren’t a lot of improvements to be made because the building was in such good shape,” said Allard.

Walking through the two-story building, each room gleamed with new paint, carpet or hardwood floors and furnishings. On the first floor, the kitchen may be slightly outdated, said Allard, but it is functional and leads into a dining room and living room. An enclosed breezeway is connected off the living room, and the attached garage is spacious enough to store maintenance equipment. The first floor also hosts a full bathroom, the administrative offices and a bedroom and private bathroom for a house manager.

The second floor has six bedrooms, and two bathrooms; originally it held one bathroom, said Allard, but they opened up the space to provide two. Each bedroom holds two beds and is simply furnished. Along with being home to the washer and dryer, the basement of the former rectory is still being transformed into its full potential as a classroom-type space to provide training for the women.

“We put a great deal of effort into providing quality of life,” said Allard of the choices behind the construction. “We feel that if we give someone a place where they feel safe, respected, and is clean and affordable, then that is reciprocal.”

Women were lined up through agencies, so “we had people ready to move in,” said Allard when Grace House opened more than two months ago. The ages of the 10 women currently living at the transitional home range from 18 years old to women into their 50s and each resident is expected to follow house rules and are responsible for the upkeep of the home.

“Residents of Grace House will receive individual, as well as group counseling, on a wide range of critical areas such as educational, economic, financial management and personal support,” said Allard. “Each tenant will be individually assessed to determine her primary needs and an action plan will be created that will serve as the guidepost in bringing stability into her life and assisting with obtaining permanent, affordable housing.”

Angieleigh Robinson, a member of Catholic Social Services direct care who has been on staff at Grace House since it opened, said that having transitional housing for women is “very beneficial to build confidence here, to get back on their feet so that they can be successful on their own and not have to depend on someone. A lot of the women come because they stay with someone, and then get kicked out; they’re in a relationship and it’s a bad relationship. They deal with abuse. Here it’s safe. We can do things for them that, maybe, they think is impossible in the way they’re viewing it.”

The feedback she’s received from the women has been positive, said Robinson, and the women are not just working on themselves but building up a sense of community: “They’re just grateful and happy that it’s such a nice place to stay to get back on their feet. They feel very blessed. They feel it’s great to have a safe place to come home to, to take a shower and eat every day.”

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On the same property, construction is still in its early stages next door at the church as it is being transformed into what Allard perceives will be a “model shelter” for 26 homeless adult males.

“We’re going to have on-site job training programs, two of them. We have a kitchen here and we’re going to upgrade it, relocate the soup kitchen that CSS operates, and then bring in a job training program onsite that’s going to train guests to receive their food handler’s certification. That’s going to come through the operation of the soup kitchen,” said Allard, who added there will also be a personal care attendant training program so that residents can become PCA certified, and the men and women will be allowed to use the on-site training programs. 

“This project will not only allow for the continued operation of a vital resource for the city’s homeless,” said Allard, “but do so in a much more enhanced and expanded manner.”

The men’s shelter will be handicap accessible with a lift being installed that will go down to the basement and first floor, which will host 26 beds in cubicles and office space. In the rear of the building will be bathrooms and showers, and the basement will be the kitchen and program area.

Allard recognized another boon when he looked at the property — the large parking lot; where most people saw only gray cement, he saw green.

“We’re going to install a community garden,” he said. “We’re going to put in eight raised beds — vegetables, herbs and all that kinds of stuff — and we’re going to incorporate the produce into the kitchen. It’s going to be maintained by the guests here. They’re going to learn where food comes from, how it’s processed and consumed, and appreciate the hard work that goes into it.”

The community garden will also be open to the neighbors of the shelter: “The idea is to have four for the guests and four for the community,” said Allard. “What we see in that is the ability to link together the guests and the neighbors, so that the neighbors’ fears, skepticism and doubts about these people can be broken down, and the guests, who may have the sense that nobody cares for them or trust them.”

There will also be a courtyard linking the transitional home and shelter where the residents can enjoy the outdoors in a more private setting.

The total development construction cost for the Sister Rose House was more than $1.8 million dollars with financing coming from the city of New Bedford’s Community Development Block Grant, the state housing program’s Housing Initiative Fund, private donations and Allard offered special thanks and appreciation to BayCoast Bank, which holds the mortgage on the property.

Allard said that the shelter should be completed by October and wants to have an official ribbon-cutting ceremony that will highlight not just the hard work put into transforming the property, but put the spotlight on how the property will now transform individuals.

“I think it helps to eliminate homelessness because in order to eliminate homelessness, you need many factors,” said Allard. “One is to bring stability to their lives, another one is to provide supportive services, another is to provide transitional housing and then permanent housing. A starting point for all that is to provide the best shelter that we can. You have to start somewhere. There is homelessness so why not provide the best possible shelter as a starting point?”

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