Women On The Rise: Cambridge Organization Forges Personal Relationships within the Growing Female Homeless Community

Zachary Goldhammer
Spare Change News

On The Rise, the name of the Cambridge women’s day shelter located at 341 Broadway in Cambridge, has recently taken on a new meaning. The phrase not only represents the ideological aims of the program—to rehabilitate women who have been left on the streets—but also an unfortunate reality: the number of homeless women in the city is, itself, rising, at a significant rate.

“It’s always difficult for us to fully trust census data,” said Executive Director Martha Sandler, “but we cannot deny that there are more women showing up at our door every day.”

This year, the organization has met with around 400 women, an increase of about 12 percent from the previous year’s count. This increase is particularly significant for an organization that prides itself on maintaining a “long-term relational approach” with the women it serves. “Building personal relationships,” Sandler says, is essential to “establishing the trust of women who have been victimized by abuse and neglect, often beginning early in childhood.” Yet how can the non-profit organization hope to keep its relationships personal as its membership continues to expand?

The answer will not come from restricting services. On The Rise defines itself as a “wet” or “low-threshold” organization, meaning that it refuses to turn away new members who may suffer from drug or alcohol addiction and does not necessarily require its members to seek treatment. “Addiction often comes as part of the package,” says Sandler. “We won’t turn anyone away for anything short of threatening violence.” This means that many of the women who have been rejected by other aid programs are now seeking help from On The Rise.

Instead of cutting back on services, On The Rise is looking to expand its offerings. In addition to providing “tangible life services” — daily needs such as regular meals, showers, and laundry — the program is also looking to provide greater access to housing and shelter.

Currently, the program is unable to provide overnight shelter. However, its Keep the Keys program has been successful in finding affordable housing for around 50 women just this past year. The organization is looking to increase housing availability by acquiring more property, but sky-high Cambridge property prices have kept this dream from becoming anything close to a reality. Additionally, some of the women who have found housing are not fully satisfied, as legal entanglements keep them from getting exactly what they need.

“We have one woman here who has access to a home, but can’t gain custody of her children because she doesn’t have multiple bedrooms, and she can’t gain access to multiple rooms because she doesn’t have her children. It’s a Catch-22, and there are lots of women in this sort of situation,” Sandler said.

With the prospect of housing for many women still in the distant future, On The Rise is turning its focus back towards street outreach, teaming up with another local wet shelter, CASPAR. “This is the sort of thing which we haven’t done since we moved to 341 Broadway, and which we need to do more,” said Sandler.

ZACHARY GOLDHAMMER is a volunteer writer and editor at Spare Change News.

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