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Saturday, December 3, 2022

Second Chances

At the front door of Ruth’s House, a flowered wreath and stained-glass panels welcome visitors. Upstairs, inspirational drawings from local elementary school students — Crayola rainbows and butterflies with the words “Keep on trying!” — line the walls. Lamps cast a soft glow in the bedrooms, and comforters are folded back as if weary residents soon will arrive home and collapse into bed. But for more than a year, no one has come home. The house is paralyzed in time. A long-outdated recycling schedule hangs in the laundry room, and bedside alarm clocks blink the wrong neon digits.

When Shana Head walked through the same door in June 2009, the house was full of women who, like her, arrived in a last-ditch effort to beat addictions and rebuild their lives. Before Head, 34, came to Ruth’s House, she had been homeless for two years — bouncing between friends’ homes and sleeping on the streets. The brick house on the corner of Walnut and Governor streets “was like a home,” Head says. “Everyone was so welcoming.”

For Head and dozens of other local women, opening the front door of Ruth’s House symbolized a gateway to a new life. But in October 2009, those journeys were interrupted by devastating news: Ruth’s House, a ministry of Reflecting Waters, had decided to suspend its services due to a lack of funding.

This January, the facility once again will open its doors. Stories like Head’s were so compelling and the services so vital that “in our minds,” says Jennifer Dick, executive director of Reflecting Waters, “there was no option for not reopening.”

The vision for Ruth’s House, a faith-based, transitional housing program for homeless women facing drug or alcohol addictions, came from Ruth Milgate, a longtime United Methodist pastor in Evansville. Contemplating retirement in her 70s, Milgate sold most of her belongings, headed to Washington, D.C., and spent a year volunteering with Samaritan Inns, a residential recovery program that helped homeless addicts transform into strong, confident, capable people. After that year, Milgate decided her calling wasn’t to retire. It was to bring strategies from Samaritan Inns back home to help local women.

The need was real. On any given night, around 400 people sleep in Evansville shelters or transitional housing facilities. The 2000 Census reported that Vanderburgh County has the highest per-capita rate of homelessness in the state. When shelters are full, women arriving without children — the individuals served by Ruth’s House — may be harder to place than those with children, Dick says. 

After a 2006 groundbreaking on a vacant lot near Downtown, the 12-bed facility was completed in December 2007. The following January, Dick was hired as executive director. The Newburgh native brought a background in women’s ministry through Student Christian Fellowship at the University of Southern Indiana. In addition to a passion for helping women in crisis, “my heart has been broken with the rate of homelessness and number of people living at or below poverty level,” Dick says. “As a community, we aren’t always informed or aware of the need.”

When Ruth’s House opened in March 2008, it offered more than a safe place to sleep. The intensive recovery program lasts a minimum of six months and requires residents to attend daily 12-step meetings, weekly one-on-one counseling sessions, group therapy, and house meetings. Women also are expected to find jobs, perform household chores, and cook for themselves.

Adjusting to such a structured environment wasn’t easy, admits Head, who came to Ruth’s House following a decade of addiction first to prescription pills, then methamphetamine. After landing in jail on charges of conspiracy to deal, she stayed at a local substance abuse treatment facility before moving to Ruth’s House. Tasks such as developing a budget and managing time were foreign concepts when her life was ruled by addiction, Head says: “I didn’t have any responsibilities or priorities; I didn’t have anything. It was all about getting high.”

Despite the scars carried by residents of Ruth’s House — often caused by traumatic experiences including homelessness, generational poverty, and sexual abuse — both Head and Dick agree the atmosphere is positive, compassionate, and encouraging. “Women often cry when they walk through the doors,” Dick says, “because it’s beautiful. Many of them have never had something beautiful.”

Ruth’s House staff and board members believe that investing in women’s futures is invaluable. But like any investment, the organization’s work comes at a price. Ruth’s House operates solely through small grants and donations from individuals and churches. The home opened with six months of reserve funds. That was six months before the recession became apparent with the September 2008 collapse of investment giant Lehman Brothers, the $85 billion bailout of AIG, the failure of Washington Mutual Bank, and other high-profile events.

Soon, as competition for grants intensified and the need for services grew greater, Ruth’s House began operating month-to-month. The board of directors considered taking out a mortgage against the house (which is debt-free), but they learned the facility was too young; they needed three years’ worth of documentation to secure the loan. After seeking advice from nonprofit leaders and consultants, two options emerged: close their doors or cut services to the point that operating successfully was impossible.

The news was delivered to residents during an evening house meeting. “I started crying,” Head recalls. “I felt scared. This was my home, and it was going to be ripped out from me again.”

Ruth’s House leaders explained that no one would be on the streets; the staff would work with other local organizations to help residents find housing. After the staff was laid off, Dick moved into the house to stay with the women still living there until they found housing arrangements. “Even though it was handled as well as it could be,” she says, “it was awful.”

For more than a year, Dick and her board have been in fundraising mode. The house will reopen in January, and the need still is great. The week before Ruth’s House announced it was closing, Southwestern Healthcare (a mental health and addiction treatment service provider) released a study that found a shortage of transitional housing for individuals recovering from addictions. At closing, Ruth’s House was at full capacity. And for more than a year, Dick says she’s received several phone calls a week from women who want to stay at Ruth’s House once it reopens.

In its first year and a half, Ruth’s House served 35 women and graduated nine, although the number of graduates likely would have been higher if residents’ stays had not been cut short by the closing. “The number we serve may look small on paper,” Dick says, “but the ripple effect is great.”

That’s true for Head, who has reunited with her children (now 9, 6, and 5), whom she once left in the care of her mother. After a stint at the YWCA after Ruth’s House closed, Head secured her own apartment and now works two jobs. She started a business, Head’s Cleaning Service, which she runs in partnership with her sister. Head still keeps in touch with friends from Ruth’s House, and once the home reopens, she plans to volunteer as a mentor.

Head credits Ruth’s House for helping her “basically learn how to live again,” she says: “I found my self-respect again. I learned how to be a mother again; I learned how to love myself again.

“I learned I am worth something,” she adds. “Even though I have this past, it doesn’t have to hold me back.”

To learn more about Ruth’s House (321 E. Walnut St.), donate, or learn about volunteer opportunities, visit www.reflectingwaters.org.

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