Helping Up Mission, one of Baltimore city’s oldest nonprofits, provides shelter and services to about 5,000 men each day. The program has never had the space to be open to women — but starting next month that will change.
Down the street from Helping Up’s main building on East Baltimore Street in the Jonestown neighborhood, a new 145,000-square-foot oasis will open in February for women in need. The eight-story building, constructed with $62.6 million in donations, will feature everything from a salon, fitness center and playground to health care facilities.
When women first walk through the doors of the Center for Women & Children, said Pamela Wilkerson, its director, she hopes those who have experienced trauma from battling addiction or homelessness will be able to take a deep breath and feel at home.
“Every part of this building speaks to healing,” Wilkerson said. “We are changing the trajectory of how we do recovery and having women empower women.”
Of the city’s 21 shelters that report to Baltimore’s Homeless Management Information System, a database that tracks homeless services in the city, only one is devoted only to women.
Having a space for just women, Wilkerson said, is imperative to make sure they feel safe and secure because many coming through the doors have dealt with years of abuse and trauma from men.
The new 24/7 facility will adapt a program similar to that already offered to men. It’s a 12-step program that lasts about one year and provides counseling services as well as job training.
Still, Wilkerson said, there will be some differences between the men’s and women’s programs. For example, since women’s and men’s bodies metabolize drugs differently, they have different needs for mental and physical care, she said. Those going through Helping Up’s program often struggle with substance abuse.
Helping Up plans to open toward the end of February, though a date has not been set. Initially, about 50 women will move in. Of those 50, at least 28 will come from the organization’s pilot program. Launched in 2019, the program allowed Helping Up to lay the groundwork for what its new facility would look like. In July, the nonprofit will look to add about another 50 women. The rest will be a mixture of staff picks and referrals, eventually housing 150 women. Next year children will be eligible to move in.
When Marsha first walked into Helping Up about a year ago she felt uncertain. The Baltimore Sun is not publishing the woman’s last name because she is concerned about her safety after being a victim of abuse.
At 64, she had spent nearly six decades struggling with alcohol, drugs and trauma from abuse and sex trafficking. Marsha had tried other programs before but nothing seemed to help.
After her last suicide attempt in the winter of 2020, a turning point came when Marsha’s son brought her to Helping Up Mission, she said.
“I didn’t feel safe or loved for 58 years of my life,” Marsha said. “But when I came to Helping Up, it was different. They loved us for who we were. And for the first time in my life, I felt loved and valued.”
Over the past 15 months, Marsha said she discovered a self-confidence she didn’t know existed. Although the program lasts 12 months, Helping Up allows people to stay for as long as they need.
Marsha said she is looking forward to moving into the new building and can’t wait to spend time in the new library, with vibrant turquoise walls and cozy seats, that will be filled with more than 800 books. She also is looking forward to the workforce development program, which trains women in industries such as cooking, cosmetology and computers.
“I struggled for decades,” Marsha said. “And if I can feel the way I feel now after that long, I want other women to know it’s possible too. They make you feel like you’re special and you’re wanted.”
Irene Agustin, director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services, called the new shelter a welcome addition to the city.
In 2020, her office found that nearly 2,200 people were experiencing homelessness in Baltimore on any given night.
“Housing Baltimoreans experiencing homelessness takes a community effort and we are glad to have the new Helping Up Mission [HUM] shelter added to the overall system of care,” Agustin said in a statement.
From April 2020 to April 2021, overdose deaths rose 21% in Maryland, according to the latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and by more than 28% nationwide. More than 100,000 people died due to overdoses in that time period, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
The CDC estimates that more than 2,800 Marylanders are included in the national tally, acknowledging that the numbers may be underreported due to incomplete data. That’s up from close to 2,300 overdose deaths the year prior.
Laura Starsoneck, the new facility’s assistant program director, said it aims to foster inclusivity and hope. Throughout the building there are paintings of women of all ages and races. And around each corner are windows offering sweeping views of the city along with lively wall colors and beautiful patterns from the pillows to the decorations. It was all designed with the goal of getting the women to feel happy again, she said.
“We want to be able to inspire hope and remind them that there is hope outside of trauma,” Starsoneck said.
This article is part of our Newsmaker series, which profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at email@example.com.