Since joining the nonprofit Women in Need seven years ago, Pamela Brasier has witnessed what she calls the “changing face of homelessness.”
Families now make up about three quarters of those living in homeless shelters in New York City. About a third of the shelter population is children, and many are women, often the survivors of domestic violence.
The more fortunate among them are referred to Win, a leading provider of shelter and supportive housing in New York City, with about 1,200 families currently in residence. Since opening its doors to four mothers in 1983, Win now serves about 10,000 women and their children each year, or 10 percent of the homeless population, with a budget of $25.5 million.
“The typical homeless New Yorker nowadays is a young mother rather than that man on the street asking you for spare change,” said Brasier, who is the program director of the Win Family Residence at East River and oversees case managers responsible for the welfare of 146 families. The average stay at a Win unit is 15 months, which in Brasier’s opinion is not long enough. But demand for housing is so great that a new family moves in on average every four hours.
As the daughter of a single mother, Brasier grew up under circumstances she described as “not far removed from what I see everyday.” She earned degrees from Howard University and the City College of the City University of New York, and her experience motivated her to give back to the community. By providing training in self-care and life skills to its clients she is now devoted to Win’s mission to break the cycle of homelessness.
“With such limited resources, our families are vulnerable, and one bad choice can lead to a downward spiral that lands them on the street,” she said about the tenuous situation that has contributed to a spike in the homeless population. “I want to be part of the solution that reduces the number of children in shelter to zero.”
Before joining Win, Brasier worked as case manager for at-risk children in Harlem, which exposed her to the obstacles her clients face. As a result, she understands the overwhelming challenge for staff in keeping families hopeful during a stay at Win. “Our role is to let clients know that we recognize and value their strength and resilience,” she said of the nonprofit’s approach. “We urge them to catch their breath and take advantage of our resources.
Offering access to stable child care, both after school and during summer with Camp Win, is the first step in gaining financial independence for Win clients. Learning how to rent an apartment is another giant step forward. “For the mother working part time as a security guard and earning $1,000 a month, the cost of rent and child care is prohibitive,” she said.
While subsidies help, they are only a temporary stopgap. The program works to instill a proactive mindset during each client’s relatively short stay. “Every time we move a family out and they don’t return, it’s a win,” she said, citing clients who go on to full-time jobs with benefits. “That phone call from a woman who tells me she’s doing good and her family is well is all I ask as my reward,” she said, adding, “Those of us in this field don’t get into it to be thanked.”
At the same time, Brasier is sensitive to the “compassion fatigue” among staff who bear the burden of listening to stories of trauma 24/7. Some of this burden has been alleviated by the de Blasio adminsitration’s ThriveYC program, which sends in mental hygiene experts to work collaboratively at the Win residences.
“Thrive has been a great bonus,” she added. “We’re grateful to have their clinicians on board to support high risk families and develop safety plans, especially during the holidays.”
She keeps quote from poet Audre Lorde in her office: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” But she also finds inspiration from her colleagues.
“Everyone on my staff is a hero,” she said, “and I’m proud to be in such awesome company.”