If you are young, if you are homeless, if you are a woman, and if you have children, “the chances of finding shelter in Augusta, Ga., tonight are not good,” said Virginia Lifsey, the director of the new women’s and children’s shelter at the Garden City Rescue Mission in downtown Augusta.
The new shelter opens today above Garden City’s 50-bed men’s shelter on Fenwick Street.
Lifsey, the founder of Starting Point Ministries, a new ministry of The Point, is in charge of relaunching the shelter, which was closed for renovations this summer.
The new ministry’s initial goal is to provide clean and safe shelter and day care services for young moms between ages 17 and 24. Six women and their children can stay for up to 90 days in the new shelter. They will attend daily Bible studies and receive parenting and job-skills training. A full-time housemother will live on site. Volunteers are needed to bring meals, run a clothing closet and work in the office.
Eventually, Starting Point plans to open a home for women in Harrisburg, a day care and classrooms.
“Our dream is big because the need is big,” Lifsey said. “For every four to six families we serve, I know we’re leaving 20 out on the street. They say they’re holding on until we open. How do you hold on with 3-month-old twins on the street?
Keith Pope, Garden City’s executive director, agreed.
“We’ve got to come up with a solution to the women and children’s shelter problem in Augusta,” he said. “There’s got to be a collaborative effort because they’re slipping through the cracks.
“For men, there’s help if they want it. For women, they’re being left out in the cold. The transitional houses are maxed out. Most of them come to us having already lived with family and have nowhere else to go.”
Recent renovations include an innovative approach to housing homeless moms and their children.
“I call them cubicles. They’re little mommy cubicles,” said Ansley Pope, the women and children’s director at the mission, who is married to Keith. “We’re not just taking in a woman. We’re taking in a family. More than likely, they have children, and they have more than one.”
Each cubicle features chest-high walls, with beds for moms and cribs for babies, so each woman has a semi-private space to care for her children, while also receiving support and help from other moms.
“It’s homey, comforting,” Keith Pope said. “It’s important for the kids to have their private space. They need to be together as a family. They’re coming to us from some bad circumstances. Most of the time the ladies are dealing with some sort of abuse. It’s a lot different situation than our men.”
The two ministries, at least at first, will share chapel space and resources as Starting Point gets off the ground.
“There’s daily Bible studies and chapel services for a reason,” Lifsey said. “Our ministry is called The Point because everything we do is pointing to Jesus Christ. If I gave you a place to sleep but I haven’t pointed you to Jesus Christ, I haven’t done you much.”
Lifsey, a former teacher and member of In Focus Church in Evans, said she was given a vision for helping women off the streets.
Last fall, after training with a similar ministry in Atlanta, she wrote out plans to raise $200,000 to renovate a house that would serve as a woman’s shelter.
However, she “ended up with breast cancer, had chemo, recovered from that,” Lifsey said. “We’re opening Oct. 1, which I thought was appropriate. This is my pink ribbon.”
This summer, Lifsey shared her plans with a woman at the Salvation Army, who pointed her to Garden City. Instead of raising money for a new facility, Lifsey worked with Garden City to run the program in its facility.
“It was the greatest gift,” she said. “It allows us to get started almost immediately.”
Garden City was founded in 2001 by Travis Sharpe. As a student at Victory Baptist College in North Augusta, Sharpe began picking up homeless men in Augusta and driving them to services at his church. He founded the mission with the support of Victory Baptist.
Today, Garden City is supported by Victory Baptist and nearly 20 other churches.
“We couldn’t do it without the local church,” Pope said. ‘We’re in a down economy, and we’re still open. When I took over two years ago, people said, ‘They’ll be open two or three months, then they’ll be closing their doors.’ On paper, that’s what it looked like. God had bigger plans.”
Garden City needs to raise $18,000 a month; the women’s shelter raises an additional $5,000.
“I was looking at raising $200,000 to start a house before I found Garden City,” Lifsey said. “We’ve raised zero dollars and zero centers. We’ve been given all of this. I cannot tell you today how we’re going to pay the bills, but if God has given us this place, he can certainly pay the bills.”
A recent workday brought out volunteers from several congregations, who helped with landscaping, cleaning and maintenance.
“It’s a 100-year-old building, so it needs some maintenance,” Keith Pope said. “The building was never designed to handle the foot traffic. There are three showers for 55 guys. The bathroom needs to be replaced.”
In this economy, “our numbers are through the roof,” Pope said. “All the shelters are. The numbers go even higher in the winter.”
Staff say there’s also a brand new problem.
“We’re getting calls from men with children,” said Scott Simet, the assistant director who runs Garden City’s transitional house in south Augusta. “Maybe a half-dozen calls over a few months. That didn’t use to happen.
“It’s usually single dads because of death or divorce or something. But they have these kids, and it’s a problem no one expected. No one out there – no one – is prepared to take them in.”