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Providing a Fresh Start

Local organization is recognized for work with homeless and abused women.

Sitting in the family room of her new Arlington apartment, Pam Wilson struggles to recount the verbal and physical abuse she endured for months at the hands of her partner in upstate New York.

At first, the abuse consisted of a verbal lashing or brief physical confrontation, but over the course of several months it escalated to the point where Wilson feared for her 12-year-old daughter’s safety. The two fled to Arlington and stayed with a friend’s mother while they looked for a homeless shelter where Wilson and her daughter felt safe.

They found a temporary home with Doorways for Women and Families, an Arlington organization that runs both a safe house for victims of domestic violence and a homeless shelter designed for families. It strives to help women become self-sufficient and secure permanent housing, and also provides children's services, counseling and domestic violence awareness programs in the community.

“If it wasn’t for Doorways I don’t know where I would be,” said Wilson, who stayed in the organization’s shelter for two months and now lives in an apartment supplied by Doorways and partially funded by the county. “They helped me re-group my life.”

Last Thursday, Doorways received the county’s 2005 James B. Hunter Human Rights Award, which recognizes organizations, businesses and individuals who make a sustained commitment to improving the human rights of Arlington residents. This year’s other winners were John Robinson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, Clarendon Presbyterian Church and Verizon.

“Domestic violence has been recognized as one of the most serious human rights violations and Doorways has helped thousands of women and children during its 27 years,” said Margaret Huang, a member of the Hunter Awards commission and official with Global Rights, a Washington, D.C. human rights advocacy organization.

DOORWAYS WAS founded in 1978 by Arlington residents concerned there were no shelters in the county for families. The founders purchased one house to serve as temporary dwelling for the homeless and acquired a second property in 1989, which they converted into a safe house for individuals trying to escape domestic abuse.

“Our mission is to empower and strengthen women in need and serve those most vulnerable in the community,” said Executive Director Linda Dunphy.

The organization runs a public awareness program to educate Arlington residents about domestic violence. It also has a hotline for individuals to call in and get support and advice.

“It’s important that we help people know what to do and how to prepare to leave [their abuser],” Dunphy said.

A common misconception is that domestic abuse only affects lower-income residents, Dunphy said. She hopes that the award will give the issue publicity and increase understanding in the community.

Doorways' homeless shelter has 16 beds and took in a total of 107 individuals, from 44 families, in 2004. Families typically stay between one and three months. Half of the shelter's inhabitants are children. The shelter offers beds to single women but prefers to house only families.

“The rooms are very nicely decorated and safe,” said Dunphy. “It’s a very nurturing environment and the children feel a sense of stability.”

Doorways is known for its strict requirements, including a nightly curfew and no overnight guests or alcohol. All food in the shelter is provided by the organization, but residents must do all of their own cooking.

“We have to be careful about who we let in because we have so many children,” Dunphy said. “And they have to abide by the rules of the house.”

RESIDENTS MUST leave the shelter each day to seek work. Counselors collaborate with the county’s job placement center to aid them in their employment search. Counselors also help them set up savings accounts and teach them how to properly budget their income.

School tutors and mental health counselors come into the shelter to ease the children’s adjustment to their new surroundings.

Once the residents have secured a steady source of income, most move to other shelters in the area, such as the Sullivan House, or into Doorways’ transitional housing program. Those in the transitional program, like Wilson, have most of their rent subsidized by Doorways and county grants but must be otherwise self-sufficient. Twelve families currently live in Doorways-supplied transitional housing.

The domestic violence safe house has 11 beds and served 87 people in 2004, for an average of 25 days. Though some women come to the safe house on their own volition, many are referred by the police. Doorways’ counselors work with the county Department of Human Services to provide guidance and legal assistance.

Sometimes women will enter the shelter for multiple short stays before they decide to permanently leave their abusive partner, Dunphy said.

“We’re focused on responding to a crisis, understanding the situation and letting the individual know what their options are,” she added.

Doorways operates a thrift store to supply their clients with free clothing and to earn revenue from the general public. The organization also coordinates a holiday gift drive and a monthly dinner between with residents and a guest speaker.

WILSON AND her daughter are slowly assembling a new life in Arlington, free of abuse and instability.

“She loves the school she’s in,” Wilson said. “It’s a much better situation.”

Though Wilson is on government disability, she is beginning to look for part-time work and said she is thrilled to live in Arlington.

“Pam was really in a crisis when she first came here,” said Caroline Jones, Doorways’ client services director. “She’s made some real gains and feels ready to take that next step. She’s thinking of the future in a positive way and we are just thrilled by that.