In its second year, The Sisterhood program at Austin Street Center has become a mainstay of our guest services. For 32 women, it is the lifeline they need to change their lives and embrace a future free from trauma and homelessness.
The Sisterhood was developed to serve women who have experienced trauma that contributed to their becoming homeless or who have experienced homelessness for an extended period of time. Program manager Monica McGee says the first place to start with helping traumatized women begin to heal is by developing trust. “The women who are being victimized—the people who violate them are also the people who protect them. That’s where the distrust comes in. They don’t trust you. They tell you, ‘everyone who said they’re going to help me, they hurt me.’”
When a woman enters the Sisterhood, Monica’s first order of business is to build rapport. She understands why they don’t trust her right away because she was there too, having experienced homelessness herself over 20 years ago. Monica spends a lot of time with Sisterhood participants, making sure they know that she is available to them. “I never say, ‘no, I can’t talk to you.’ Saying no just shuts down someone who has experienced trauma. I always look them in the face and say, ‘if you can wait a minute, I’ll get with you. I’m straightforward and consistent, and eventually I can tell when they’ve started to trust me.”
Getting them to talk about their trauma is the next step. By providing a safe place to begin to open up, the Sisterhood sets the stage for deep healing. . Some women prefer to journal or express themselves artistically, but the important thing is that they begin to process their pain so they can start to release it.
“When someone is ready to change, you can see it in everything they do—the way they dress, the way they talk, the way they interact with others. They start caring for themselves more. Like they’re starting to believe they’re worth it. I don’t think there’s anything greater than watching someone grow and change and start to want another type of life,” says Monica.
When that desire for change occurs, Monica starts working with them on accountability and responsibility to oneself, to each other, and to the community. This is when the true sisterhood emerges, as women begin to trust each other and start opening up during group discussions. Recently Monica started a new, informal series of hangout groups to give the women more chances to develop the kinds of relationships that support their transformation.
Frequently graduates of the program come back to speak to the current group, or just to sit in when they need some encouragement. Many women have moved out into their own apartments and are doing well on their own.
What is the ultimate goal? To quote Monica, “It’s all about empowerment, change, and confidence to live their new life.”