This year, Fresh Start, a transitional shelter for homeless women, marks its 25th year of helping women overcome their barriers to self-sufficiency.

To date, 1,500 women have called it home. Fresh Start is unique in that it offers long-term shelter up to a year and targets homeless women without children in their custody, an underserved population that routinely waits the longest for services. Most residents, though, are mothers.

To celebrate the anniversary, Fresh Start’s board of directors will host a banquet at the Country Club of Lincoln on Sept. 29.

Today, homeless women can rebuild their lives in a refurbished former church at 6433 Havelock Ave. The primary eligibility requirements are simple – the woman must be at least age 19, homeless and committed to making a change. If a woman has no income, she’s not charged program fees.

Many women come to the shelter with just the clothes on their backs or their few possessions in a shoebox. Fresh Start provides for their basic needs, and a dedicated team of case managers helps them with their goals along their paths to self-sufficiency. It’s staffed 24/7/365. Executive Director Monica Zinke and Program Coordinator Meg Damme lead the intrepid (and small) team with the full support of engaged and involved board members.

The 12 rooms with names like Endurance and Resiliency, and 24 beds, are usually full. And there’s a waiting list.

Zinke became the agency’s third director in May 2008.

“I’m passionate about what we do, because I see our residents striving so hard to improve their lives,” Zinke explained. “I know how easily anyone could become homeless – it could happen gradually or be one big thing like a health crisis or sudden job loss.

“Meg Damme has been and is an amazing part of Fresh Start for many reasons,” Zinke added. “Her dedication to the organization and to the women we serve is an inspiration. She’s a wonderful role model.”

The two leaders complement each other well.

Lifesaving services

Former residents often say Fresh Start saved their lives.

Elsie (a pseudonym), 50, was just “two days away from nowhere to go” when she came to Fresh Start. “I walked in and the ladies were making supper – chili – and they invited me to eat,” she recalled.

An epiphany it was not – she didn’t want to be there and at first “hated” the residents and staff. She stayed, found “real and true friends,” and was proud of her job at Russ’s Market. At the end of her year, she hated to leave home.

Like many homeless women, Elsie had a middle-class upbringing with loving and supportive parents. She finished school, had good jobs, married and had kids. “No reasons,” she said, to be a drug and alcohol addict. Wrong choices including IV meth use, medical and financial crises converged, and she “learned quickly about poverty in this community.”

Today, Elsie gives back and supports Fresh Start and its residents however she can. Her hope for Fresh Start? “That we open another house.”

Hearing success stories of residents like Elsie “who have moved on to self-sufficiency and answer the call to give back to those still struggling is truly inspiring,” said Nick Ludwig, board vice president. “It makes it worth all the effort.”

Looking back

The late Eleanore Enersen, a founder and past president of Fresh Start, once told a Lincoln Journal reporter, “There were seven of us when we just decided come high or hell water, that if there was a need, somebody ought to do something about it [homelessness].”

Enersen, Sister Barbara Ann Braun and others joined forces and their Rolodexes together in 1991. With donations from Woods Charitable Fund and the Sisters of Charity Health Care Foundation through St. Elizabeth Community Health Center, they launched a project to give homeless women a “fresh start.”

Fresh Start’s first shelter – a rental property at 1809 Ryons St. owned by Joyce Burgess, another founder – opened March 2, 1992, rent-free for two years. Executive Director Mala DeBerg faced the task of fleshing out the broad project outline, inspired by a program in Canada. Three women moved in, and capacity later increased to nine (with just one water heater for all). The shelter served 32 women by August 1993.

To expand, the board purchased a four-plex at 2323 F St. in February 1994. First Presbyterian Church members quickly refurbished the building into a home, and on March 19, Fresh Start moved in. Overnight, shelter capacity increased to 12. Three paid staff members and volunteers were responsible for all shelter services and operations.

In 2001, the purchase of the duplex next door added four beds, plus needed living and office space. Tiffany Mullison came on board in August 2002 as Fresh Start’s second executive director, and by the end of 2002, the shelter had served 620 women.

Fresh Start launched a $1.3 million capital campaign to expand services and address its lengthening waiting list by purchasing and fully renovating a 12,000-square-foot building in the Havelock neighborhood. The capital campaign fell short of its goal, shelving plans to refurbish the building’s loft into usable office space; unfortunately, it remains unfinished. Fresh Start moved into its new facility in July 2007, opening 18 of 24 beds. After securing additional funding to meet staffing needs, the remaining six beds became available a year later.

Hopes and challenges

From Ludwig’s perspective, “The near-constant struggle to retain talented staff on a shoestring budget, and securing funds to keep the shelter operating” are Fresh Start’s biggest challenges. “I can’t say enough about the agency staff, director and fellow board members who find creative ways to keep things moving and identify the passionate people that directly and indirectly support our cause.”

Added Zinke: “We’d like to do more to help our residents overcome their most significant barriers to independence – transportation, affordable housing and health needs. Besides more client assistance, in the next few years we’d like to reduce our building costs, including the mortgage.”

The 80-year-old building needs repairs and is in dire need of a new roof.

“Fresh Start is truly grateful for all of the support we receive from the community,” Zinke said. “We couldn’t provide our much-needed services without help from individuals, churches and others in Lincoln.”

Within five years, Ludwig hopes for an established endowment and planned giving through trust and estate contributions. “We need help ensuring the shelter stays open until the last homeless woman is back on her feet!”

For more information about Fresh Start or to purchase tickets for the 25th anniversary banquet, see freshstarthome.org or call 402-475-7777. Fresh Start Home is also on Facebook.

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