From Being Homeless to Preventing Trafficking
By Meg St. Esprit McKivigan
Bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
Walking into a shell of a house in an older Pittsburgh neighborhood, it is hard at first to see the purpose of this space that is stripped down to the studs. Like so many of the homes in Pittsburgh, this building had fallen into disrepair through neglect and ambivalence. Lack of resources, lack of effort, or simply being forgotten as the world moves around it.
For Sharlene Dominick and Angela Perry-Hopf, co-founders of Garden Homes Ministries, they don’t see what others might. From the moment they walked into Sunflower House—as it is now called—they saw opportunity. They saw a space for women who, much like the house itself, have been neglected and forgotten by society. Through a miraculous leap of faith, a friend and contractor bought the house and became a partner in creating a home for women whose lives have, figuratively, fallen into disrepair. The house is now under rigorous construction as the team adds bathrooms, bedrooms, and new living spaces. Though the kitchen lacks counters or appliances now, the co-founders stand in the space envisioning how the open layout will foster community meals and conversations over morning coffee. Their faces glow as they talk about the women who will live in this space soon.
Dominick, who was herself homeless as a pregnant teenager, had a desire in her heart for a long time to create a home for women leaving drug and alcohol treatment or jail.
“When I came out of Allegheny County jail, I wasn’t allowed around my son. He was with my mom at the time,” Dominick said. “I stayed in a shelter, and they kick you out during the day. I had nowhere to go all day, I just wandered around looking for food or something to do. That’s the point where women risk being exploited or trafficked for shelter.”
When a woman leaves jail or substance abuse treatment, she is at a high risk of homelessness and trafficking. According to Fortune, “Nearly 9,000 cases in the U.S. were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline and BeFree Textline in 2017—a 13 percent increase from the prior year.”
Dominick continued to think about this vision of a safe home for vulnerable women, and prayed for a partner in her endeavor. Just a few miles away, Perry-Hopf had a similar vision in her heart, and was becoming impatient with the timing and busyness of life.
“[I thought], am I gonna be like 70 when this happens?” Perry-Hopf said. “Then I met Sharlene, and we got to know each other, and Shar said out of the blue one day, ‘We need to start a home. I need a partner, just pray about it.’”
Perry-Hopf was floored, to hear the words she had been waiting for, and she knew her vision was going to come to fruition.
Perry-Hopf, like Dominick, draws from her own experiences of being cast aside by society and victimized at a young age. In foster care as a teen, she struggled to maintain safety for herself. There were no supports in place, though she did have a foster family who stuck by her through a difficult journey.
“I was a broken girl. I found broken people to be friends with— nobody wanted their kid around me. I was sleeping in people’s cars, I could have easily been trafficked,” Perry-Hopf said. “I got pregnant right out of high school. But my foster parents took me back in, even in my mess.”
That experience of redemptive love is what spurred Perry-Hopf’s vision of taking other women in their mess and providing them a stable place to get back on their feet.
The pair incorporated Garden Homes Ministries with Sunflower House as their first home. When it opens in 2020, it will house four women who are post-incarceration or substance abuse treatment. Women will have to demonstrate 30 days clean, participate in a 12 step program and mental health treatment, and agree to a behavior covenant with Dominick and Perry-Hopf upon arrival.
“These women are on the cusp of homelessness. Leaving residential treatment or jail, you are just so vulnerable. So many women end up homeless in those situations,” Perry-Hopf said.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, individuals post-incarceration are 10 times more likely than the general population to experience homelessness. The same lack of support and opportunity that caused so many challenges for Dominick and Perry-Hopf can be lessened with Sunflower House. Giving these women a stable place to go while they build their support network can really be what sets the trajectory for their life on a different path.
In November 2019, Garden Homes Ministries hosted a fundraiser at Cityview Church in Spring Garden. They stood before a room full of support and love for their new endeavor. The team plans for Garden Homes Ministries to be self-sustaining, funded by donations and grants so that women can live there without navigating an insurance system. It brings joy to the co-founders to know that they might be able to stand in the gap, the way that others eventually did for them to draw them out of their own despair.
With the stabilization of their lives, both women have and continue to work in a variety of therapeutic and supportive roles for those at risk—culminating their combined professional expertise and personal experience into helping women put down roots and bloom at Sunflower House.
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