The house on Santa Barbara Street in Pasadena’s West Central neighborhood is as unassuming as it is transformative. Nothing about the two-story Craftsman’s exterior indicates the hub of hope it represents for those who often have nowhere else to turn. Known as Elizabeth House, the nonprofit organization nestled amid a residential block has spent the past 22 years providing shelter and support to homeless pregnant women as well as their children.
Inside, two of those women, 29-year-old Kristen Perkowski and 24-year-old Melissa Hanley, sit together on a couch. Relaxing moments like this have generally eluded the new Elizabeth House roommates for years. Perkowski, a mother of two, arrived in December, four months pregnant and having purged herself from an unhealthy relationship. She did not have a high school diploma.
“I wanted to figure out my life and get back into school,” said Perkowski. “I wasn’t sure where else I was going to go because I didn’t have any other housing except for the boyfriend who I was staying with.”
Hanley’s family had kicked her out and every other Los Angeles shelter that she called was full. Embroiled in a custody battle for her son and pregnant with another, she heard about Elizabeth House through the internet while living out of her car.
“When I first arrived, I actually didn’t know what to expect because I’d never been in a shelter,” said Hanley, who drove that car to Pasadena in mid-March. “I didn’t know the whole process. They had to explain to me everything. But I thought it was nice because it was a house.”
The story of this house began in 1993, when local resident Margo Goldsmith donated it to the Pasadena Covenant Church for the purpose of serving at-risk women and children in the community. Leadership at the church knew that one of its patrons, Debbie Unruh, had experience recruiting foster families for a social service organization called Child SHARE, and asked her to serve on a task force to determine the best use for the empty house.
Unruh and her colleagues soon realized there were no shelters within 15 miles that specifically took in adult pregnant women and their children. But the idea of Elizabeth House didn’t fully materialize until Unruh witnessed something that infused her with a new sense of responsibility.
While at the hospital delivering her own baby, Unruh watched as another woman immediately lost custody of her newborn because she was homeless and addicted to drugs.
“It just was kind of like this handwriting on the wall,” Unruh said, “that maybe I’m supposed to be involved more than just a task force member.
“The scenario in the hospital just got under my skin. … Nobody should be alone in a situation like that. No one should be giving birth without anybody in their life, in their corner. I think I was moved with kind of a benevolence of just ‘Wow, I wish there would have been a place for her. I wish there would have been a home.’”
Unruh soon resigned from Child S.H.A.R.E. and focused on her new vision for the donated house. Leading a coalition of churches, civic groups, individuals, businesses and foundations, she became the founding director of Elizabeth House, which was named after Goldsmith’s daughter and welcomed its first resident on July 15, 1994.
Although opening the house was a rewarding accomplishment for Unruh, the early days overseeing it were far from easy. It turned out that helping residents reverse their downward spirals wasn’t something that happened overnight.
“I didn’t realize how hard it would be, how we’re trying to undo years and years of a trajectory,” said Unruh, who now serves as the organization’s executive director. “Three months in, I was overwhelmed with what was before me.”
That’s when Terry Bright stepped in to help. Elizabeth House’s director of programs for the past two decades was referred to the job by a friend and felt compelled to offer her assistance. She shared the organization’s values and her skills became apparent during her very first interview with a board member. Sitting in the same room as the meeting unfolded was a woman who had recently checked into Elizabeth House. Unbeknownst to everyone else in the organization, this woman was a drug addict. Bright volunteered to ask her some questions and was able to elicit this crucial information.
“Whatever they’re running away from, whatever is chasing them, whatever they’re afraid of and don’t know how to deal with it, don’t know what to do with it, we just step in and say ‘Let us start changing your life’ and give them that opportunity,” said Bright. “That’s why it’s not a shelter. It really is a program.”
Throughout the last 22 years, Elizabeth House has nurtured 301 women and 425 children toward self-sufficiency by addressing their specific needs. The variety of programs available to residents includes parent education, health education, financial management, job training, legal counsel, specialized therapy, tutoring and spiritual guidance.
“The minute I come in and begin to unpack their story, I go directly to the heart of the issues,” said Bright, who has worked with women ages 18-42, including those who have been victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse. “They’re so surprised that anyone would care to do that and actually address these issues and actually see who they are at the moment, where they are at the moment.”
Listed with many local agencies, clinics, hospitals and the 211 federal helpline, Elizabeth House can accommodate six women and four children at any given time. The organization has opened a second location around the block as well. Clients undergo a preliminary background check and are generally permitted to stay for four to six months, but that timeline varies according to the situation. Perkowski has lived at Elizabeth House for the past four months, yet she never forgets the first day she set foot on its doorsteps.
“It was a really peaceful place, actually, and it seemed really welcoming and warm,” said Perkowski. “Everybody was really friendly here. I felt like it was a good place right away. I got to see a couple of the girls that had already been residents here passing by in the halls. They just seemed really friendly and I just felt like ‘OK, this is going to be a place where I can be at peace,’ because there was not very much peace in my life at the time.”
Aside from the tutoring she has received for her GED test on April 23, Perkowski, an aspiring phlebotomist, has benefited from one of Elizabeth House’s parent education programs.
“We have an ‘I Am a Momma’ class, which really helps me because I wasn’t really bonding well with this baby that I’m pregnant with now because in the beginning there was so much chaos with the father,” Perkowski said, referring to her daughter, Jaguar, whose due date is May 7.
The disconnect between mothers and their unborn babies is not an uncommon phenomenon at Elizabeth House. Nearly 40% of the women grew up in foster homes themselves, and have no basis for what it means to be a parent.
“If you came from a functional family, you don’t realize the natural progression of what that — even the first year of life between you as a baby and your parents — did in forming you and creating this child who is able to gradually be out there and function in the world,” Unruh explained.
Elizabeth House, which receives funding from private donors, foundations, civic groups, schools, churches and an annual gala slated this year for April 30, employs 10 staff members on both a full-time and part-time basis. An additional collection of interns and volunteers give Elizabeth House about 25 workers per week on average. The staff does not live in the house, but rather rotates shifts 24 hours a day to ensure that the women are never alone — which is how Hanley spent most of the past few months.
“Elizabeth House opened the doors for me and now my life is turning around,” said Hanley, who is studying real estate. “Slowly but surely, everything is kind of falling into place.”
The organization has even helped Hanley through the legal battle for custody of her 2-year-old son, Cyrus.
“He’s excited to be a big brother so I just want him together with me,” said Hanley, whose second son, Cyon, is due June 15. “That’s what we’re working on right now.
“[Bright] has helped me a lot, getting stuff organized, keeping my lines straight as far as what I need to do for court.”
Unruh and Bright understand that many of these women developed detrimental patterns over a lifetime, and they cannot realistically pick up every piece of debris littering their dark paths during a few months at Elizabeth House. It’s why the organization is committed to a comprehensive alumni services program aimed at providing follow-up care to clients as they transition into independent living. Continued therapy, assistance finding employment and medical check-ups are just some of the ways that Elizabeth House keeps its alumni on track.
“I have a rule when the women leave,” said Bright. “I never say goodbye. I don’t care how long you were there. If you were there for a week, you’re part of the program. You’re part of the Elizabeth House family.”
The nonprofit is currently in contact with more than 70% of its past residents, sending them four newsletters per year and inviting them back for an annual reunion. Alumni are also able to stay in touch with each other through a Facebook group and blog.
“I think that’s nice to be able to have somewhere to go to throughout your life because you never know where life takes you,” said Hanley. “That’s good to have a lifetime support system.”
Her roommate agreed.
“Anybody’s who’s really lucky to be here and come through this house, it’s like a big blessing,” said Perkowski. “ … If you’re really ready to change your life and move forward with your life, this is the place to be.”
As the two women rise from the couch and head toward a mobile dental clinic that has been set up in the living room, Bright can’t help but vocalize the sentiments swelling in her heart: “I have such admiration for both of them and I know they’re going to go all the way. It’s within them to do that and they know they have our support.”