Two years ago, Nancy Edwards fell into homelessness after being priced out of rent in Southern California. With her two dogs, Roo and Tink, in tow, she decided to drive across the country with all her belongings packed in her small sedan. Her final destination would be Boston, the home of her only child and the last place she says she received adequate mental health care.
She arrived in Boston in September 2021, and later that month met Lianne O’Reilly, a behavioral health and stabilization clinician at Women’s Lunch Place, a daytime shelter and advocacy center serving people who identify as female.
With help from O’Reilly and Women’s Lunch Place, Edwards, 65, was able to receive the mental health care she needed and took the first steps in applying for housing in the city.
“I was able to make heads or tails out of life and rescue myself from being homeless,” Edwards said.
Edwards is one of 173 clients who Women’s Lunch Place has helped to secure housing since the organization launched its housing stabilization program in July 2020. Three years later, the organizaton reports that 97 percent, or 167, of the women are still living in their new homes.
Located on Newbury Street in Back Bay, the stabilization program is designed to provide clients at Women’s Lunch Place with wraparound services before and after they receive keys for an apartment, said Doris Romero, the center’s housing and stabilization manager. Often times, women who walk through the doors have a steep learning curve when living on their own and can be evicted if they do not have continuous support.
“The last thing that I want is after getting someone into housing is for them to lose their housing,” Romero said.
Romero facilitates conversations with landlords, property managers, leasing officers, and even other tenants to ease the burden on clients. Each woman seeking housing is paired with a full-time advocate from the organization, and the team has doubled in size since its inception, she added.
For some, the housing search can take years, with some guests only moving into homes now after originally starting an application five years ago, said Romero. Other times, partnerships and applications with the city can speed up the process for those who really need housing. For instance, Edwards submitted an application to the Elders Living At Home Program through Boston Medical Center.
“In the application you have to explain why this person needs housing, and as soon as I met [Edwards,] I knew that housing was really key to her stability and moving forward,” O’Reilly said.
As a result, Edwards moved into her new home about seven months after connecting with Women’s Lunch Place.
“It’s nice and quiet and I feel secure,” Edwards said on a recent Friday in her one-bedroom apartment in the South End.
While stabilization programs are not necessarily a new invention, Women’s Lunch Place’s method of keeping tabs on and tracking women it helps find housing is encouraging, because it shows “obvious and dramatic evidence that it works,” said Susan Sered, professor of sociology at Suffolk University.
For the past 15 years, Sered has been following a group of about 50 women in Boston who fall in and out of homelessness. In her research, she has seen women lose housing because of substandard living conditions or abusive men in their life who visit homes and cause trouble — issues that can often be prevented with robust stabilization services.
“A lot of these problems are dealt with before they get out of control,” she said of the system in place at Women’s Lunch Place. “They can provide this kind of really intensive support that can help people get through that difficult period or a difficult incident and hold on to their housing.”
Romero said she poses as many questions as possible to find a strong fit for each individual client.
“Do they want to stay in Boston? Do they want roommates or their own space?”
However, even though the program is run through the shelter, women who seek the stabilization services have their own agency throughout the process, choosing where, when, and what they apply to.
“We can provide them options of different opportunities, but they get to choose where they want to apply to,” Romero said.
Most of the clients would prefer to stay in Boston, Romero said, but that doesn’t always work out. Sometimes, after looking at options in Boston, she encourages clients to look elsewhere, such as the North or South Shore, to set realistic expectations. Romero added the center has had luck stabilizing people in Medford and Watertown homes.
The stabilization program is unique since it doesn’t end once women get the keys to their new place.
“People really assume like everything’s like sunshine and flowers once you get housed,” O’Reilly said. “And it can be, but for a lot of people it can be traumatic in many ways.”
The length of stabilization looks different for each client, Romero said. Advocates visit the homes of their clients as much as they need to help with everything from setting up cable to finding a church community nearby.
Women’s Lunch Place also assists clients facing possible eviction — a vital component of stabilization services, staff members say.
Estella Green, 55, credits the program for her finding stable housing and avoiding eviction after she had been sleeping on the streets or couch surfing for almost three years.
“I was in a place where I was about to go downhill, but I came here and I asked for help and they helped me,” Green said.
With help from her advocate, Christina Labossiere, Green has lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Brighton for more than two years. Since March, the organization has assisted Green in applying to the city’s Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program, which helps keep households in stable housing situations when facing eviction, loss of utilities, and other housing emergencies.
Green said she loves the apartment, especially the bed to sleep in, but still comes to Women’s Lunch Place almost daily because that — not Brighton — is her community.
“You can relax, be comfortable, and you can always find someone to talk to,” Green said.