Constance Collins was working with a real estate development firm in the early 2000s when she noticed a woman taking a bath in an elegant fountain amidst the swanky shops and cafes in Coral Gables. “She asked her why she was bathing there, and the woman told her it was the only place she felt safe to bathe, without fear of a man molesting her or sexually assaulting her,” says Anna Frusciante, the current director of the Lotus House Shelter. “That’s when she realized there was really a gap for gender specific housing for homeless women in Miami.”
Determined to alleviate the special plight of women who face homelessness, Collins founded the Sundari Foundation in 2004. Its first project would be to develop and construct a holistic shelter for women, providing resources for rehabilitation and empowerment to its exclusively female residents and their children. Purchasing a building in Overtown, Lotus House opened in 2006, welcoming 34 women to its shelter in the first year. Since then, Lotus House houses has helped over 1,700 women seeking refuge from a harrowing life of poverty on the streets.
Lotus House anchors its mission on confronting the gender-specific issues facing women and transgender people who find themselves homeless. “The common thread of the women we serve is a history of trauma,” says Frusciante. “It’s often a complex trauma that began in childhood, from abuse and molestation to violence out in the streets.”
Just as these physical and emotional wounds often contribute significantly to female homelessness, many victims find themselves caught in a vicious cycle of suffering. Homeless women are extremely vulnerable to gender violence, facing an increased risk of sexual assault and human trafficking. “These women, in order to heal, they don’t want to be around men,” Frusciante says. They survive by doing their best to remain invisible — sleeping behind dumpsters, crashing at local hospitals, avoiding the streets at all costs after dark; even gender-neutral homeless shelters can be dangerous, where they’re often preyed upon by other boarders. Lotus House was designed to provide a sanctuary to combat issues that, for many, involve a lifelong struggle against mental health and substance abuse issues predominantly caused by abusive men.
Lotus House also serves the trans community, who as a group are at an increased risk of violence. “Our staff is educated on best practices, which means we accept people who are transitioning both from male to female and female to male,” says Frusciante.
Also especially at risk are pregnant women and new mothers. “Women with very young children are the fastest growing demographic of people experiencing homelessness. It’s very hard to get back on your feet and put the resources in place that you need if you have young children who aren’t school age,” says Frusciante.
The exorbitant cost of childcare becomes unbearable, and women lose their homes or apartments while working around the clock to make ends meet. Thankfully, Lotus House was able to begin offering shelter to pregnant women and women accompanied by children a little less than a year after opening. “I would say we currently shelter 60 women with children, so we have about 100 children right now, largely between the ages of 0 and 10,” Frusciante notes.
While homelessness in Miami is steadily decreasing year-over-year, the statistics remain grim. In 2014, the Miami-Dade County Department of Children and Family Services reported that an estimated 30,552 adults were homeless in Miami-Dade, with nearly 34% of that population identifying as female. That amounts to over 10,000 women seeking shelter in Miami-Dade in an average year, and Lotus House barely has the room or financial resources to shelter even a small percentage of those affected. Frusciante says she turns away nearly 2,000 women a year, referring them to other homeless services or resources in the County. “Funding is absolutely a challenge,” she says, noting that homelessness is a macro problem countywide. With a substantial lack of viable shelters in Miami, many of the organizations that support Lotus House — like the Homeless Trust of Miami-Dade — frequently refer women to the shelter, which makes it more difficult to have the room to accept women pleading for shelter right off the street.
And even if women are accepted into the shelter, quarters are cramped. Women share bedrooms, and children share the living room area in beds grouped in fours. Currently, Lotus House is serving approximately 220 women and children across the organization’s main campus and its Wynwood facility. A planned expansion, set to break ground in June 2016, will be able to house another 100 or so women, as well as offer significantly larger common spaces.
Adding to the lack of space factors is the average length of stay, since Lotus House reminds its guests that there’s no such thing as a quick fix for mending enduring, deep-rooted emotional scars. Most Lotus House guests remain at the shelter for an average stay of six months, while some have been there for as long as three years.
“Many of the issues these women face are complex and can often take a lot of time to resolve,” says Frusciante. “If you’ve lost your IDs, if you don’t have a birth certificate, and you weren’t born in this country, it’s not so easy to replace those things and build a life. If you can’t remember your basic information, maybe because of mental health issues or maybe because you don’t have one family member in the world who knew you as a child, then it’s not easy to accomplish.”
Because Lotus House’s mission focuses on providing a holistic approach to rehabilitation, the organization offers far more than just a place to sleep, empowering women with the counseling and tools necessary to survive. “We always say we’re more than a meal and a shower and a bed,” Frusciante says. “Healing is a critical part of what we do here at Lotus House — from counseling and on-the-job training services, to offering resources for women with severe disabilities to obtain federal income, we do our best to ensure that our guests leave and step into situations in which they won’t have to return to us for shelter again.”
A team of seven full-time counselors offers intensive individual therapy sessions, as well as providing group therapy sessions teaching women how to create safe living situations and avoid substance abuse. On-site parenting sessions and personalized child therapy services are also offered, an extremely valuable resource for homeless children, many who have experienced or witnessed severe violence at an alarmingly young age. “It’s truly amazing that we can offer that, because there’s a window of opportunity in that age range,” Frusciante says. “If you can help children process traumas at that stage, then you impact everything in their lives going forward, and perhaps end the cycle of trauma and homelessness right then and there.”
In addition to mental health counseling, Lotus House provides its guests and other neighborhood women who lack health insurance with an on-site medical clinic, staffed by doctors from the University of Miami health system every Monday, including specialists in trans issues offering hormone therapy. They also work with severely disabled women, whether physical or emotional, helping them in qualifying for disability income.
Lotus House also works with women to find suitable housing to help them transition out of the shelter, a task that’s becoming increasingly difficult in Miami’s ultra-inflated real estate market, where affordable housing options are scarce. “We operate a housing resource in which we work with Miami-Dade County and assist people find housing with very modest incomes,” Frusciante notes. “But when your income goes down to $600, $700, or $800 a month, and you have kids, the rental program isn’t available to you. So it’s really important that we’re able to work with women on a case-by-case basis.”
One of the most rewarding and impactful programs Lotus House offers its guests is the job training and life skills program, which operates in conjunction with the Lotus House Thrift Chic Boutique. The program not only provides women with basic advice like crafting a resume or mastering a handshake, but also places them directly with on-site opportunities both at the store and the shelter. “On-site at the thrift store, we have a professional and life skills center where classes are taught every morning by Miami-Dade County schoolteachers,” Frusciante says. “That includes basic job training, retail training, and assisting women with obtaining advanced certifications, like a GED or a certificate as a home health aid.” The program provides permanent managerial positions and internship experiences at the thrift store, allowing women to gain work experience in a therapeutic environment that can later lead to other jobs.
Many of the women who work at the Shelter — over half of the staff, according to Frusciante — are also alumni of the Lotus House program. Monyia Knights is one such success story. She came to the Lotus House in October 2010, recovering from drug addiction. Today, she works as an operations coordinator at the shelter, managing supply and maintenance issues. “Coming to the Lotus House was a life-changing experience for me,” she says. “When I heard about the shelter, I didn’t know anything about it, but I knew I didn’t want to go back to the place I came from. And when I got here, my counselor taught me how to go forward, learning how to interview and make my resume. When they gave me my first job at the thrift store, I cried for an hour.”
Today, Knights uses her experience to encourage the women she serves on a daily basis, relaying her story as a message of hope even for the most frustrated survivors. “A lot of these ladies, they come here, and they don’t know that I’ve walked in their shoes. And when they find out, they tend to get a little more serious,” she says.
Like Knights, Amy Maldonado came to Lotus House during a very dark period of her life. “I was in a position in which I had lost my kids, and with that I lost my motivation,” Maldonado says. “I had experience working in medical offices and corporations, but I took a job at an ice cream store just so I could get back on my feet while I lived at the shelter. Three months later, I was offered the position as office manager here. And now I have my kids back and we’re all together in our own home.”
“This is empowerment in action,” Frusciante says. “We know how amazing the women are that come through the shelter, and they contribute every day to the success of other women that stay here.” By setting the example through women that have overcome the same hardships, Lotus House spawns a new cycle, one in which they can change the course of hundreds of women’s lives.
On the eve of the organization’s 10th anniversary, Lotus House alumni reflect on the impact that their stay had — and continues to have — on the daily lives of women across Miami. “No matter what’s happening and what you’re going through, there’s always someone you can come and talk to here,” Knights says. “This is a place you can always come back to.”