Despite Rumors, Closing of the Largest Women's Emergency Shelter in Phoenix Won't Leave Hundreds High and Dry

For weeks, a rumor has been circulating that when Phoenix's main emergency shelter for women closes later this summer, the hundreds of women it serves will have nowhere else to go.

It's a situation that certainly seems plausible, given Maricopa County's decision to shut down the Men's Overflow Shelter last year and leave hundreds with nowhere to sleep but in the dirty and dangerous parking lot adjacent to the building.

But this rumor isn't true: The Watkins Emergency Shelter, which is run by the local nonprofit UMOM, is moving across town and getting a new name.

The relocation is a huge step up, explains Darlene Newsom, CEO of UMOM. "There's never been an adequate shelter for women in Maricopa County, so we're excited about the possibilities," she says. "Watkins was always a place for women to stay," she adds, but the new facility, to be christened the Diane and Bruce Halle Foundation UMOM Women's Center, will be "a place to end their homelessness."

In essence, the current facility amounts to a single large room crammed with metal-framed cots, in a building that used to be a diaper facility. Anywhere from 120 to 140 women check in each night and receive "a warm meal, a shower, and a place to sleep," Newsom says — and that's about it.

The women are awakened at 5 a.m. and after a quick breakfast are transported to the Human Services Campus on Jackson Street. Part of the deal UMOM made with the city to keep the shelter open included a requirement that homeless individuals wouldn't walk around or congregate in the area during the day, Newsom explains.

At 3 p.m., vans begin to transport the women back to Watkins, where, according to an anonymous first-person account of the shelter experience provided by UMOM, there's little to do but sit around or nap. UMOM subscribes to the "housing-first" philosophy — the idea that permanent housing is a crucial first step in ending a person's chronic homelessness — and Newsom says that while they've had a lot of success housing women over the years, the current shelter simply is not set up to provide the necessary case management and services people often need to qualify for housing.

So when they were presented with an opportunity to purchase Guiding Star, an old hotel located right across the street from the main UMOM campus, they jumped on it.

"Women won't have to leave during the day; we'll be able to stabilize them and provide a lot of services, and they'll be safer because they don't have to spend their days on the streets fending for themselves," Newsom says.

Additionally, the proximity to the UMOM New Day Centers means better access to health care, substance-abuse counseling, job training and placement, and re-housing resources.

Right now, Guiding Star is an in-patient substance-abuse treatment center operated by Native American Connections, but the group is moving the center to a different location in June. It has only been lightly renovated since being built in 1957, and many of the 57 rooms have been converted to offices, so before UMOM moves in, the place needs a lot of rehab work, Newsom says.
The plan is to keep six of the rooms as offices for case managers and administrators, and make the rest of the building into semi-private living quarters with private bathrooms. The Diane and Bruce Halle Foundation UMOM Women's Center will have a communal dining hall and a commercial kitchen, as well as the space to provide case-management services on site.

"Watkins isn't going away — the women are just getting a much-improved, service-enriched place to stay," Newsom says. 

To pay for the building, the rehabilitation, and the relocation effort, UMOM launched a $3.5 million campaign this past September. So far, the "Women in Need" campaign has raised $2.5 million, which is at least enough to keep the project moving forward – Newsom estimates that the renovations will cost $1.4 million.

"We're still a million dollars short," she says, "but we're hoping to start the renovations in July and be done by October," after which point Watkins will close.
"I feel like women are kind of the forgotten homeless," Newsom says, "but one in four homeless individuals are women."

She rattles off other statistics, like the fact that one-fourth of the women in Watkins are older than 55, that more than 44 percent have at least one mental or physical disability, and that the vast majority have experienced sexual or physical abuse.

Women will be much safer in this new location, she promises: "It's a much better neighborhood and so much more humane than a warehouse district."

Bottom line, she adds, "We know what we do well: We do housing really well — 385 women were housed in the last 18 months — that's huge. Our job is to break down barriers to housing [and] we're really excited about the possibilities [afforded by the new location]."
For more information about the Women in Need Campaign, check out UMOM's website.
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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser