I had the pleasure of interviewing Sandra Jackson, president and CEO of the House of Ruth last week.
House of Ruth has various programs to help families as well as women and children. They help people support themselves and find stable housing. I learned that the House of Ruth has a 90% success rate, according to Jackson. Their programs are known to work and help families move on to better lives.
I wanted to do this because people were recently talking about different programs that help people experiencing homelessness. House of Ruth came to mind because they helped me with therapy years ago. After two years of counseling, I have been free, strong and happy for over 10 years.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Jackie Turner: Now, can you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your role at the House of Ruth?
My name is Sandra Jackson and I’m the president and CEO for House of Ruth. I’ve been in social services for 30 plus years. I started working with families at another nonprofit in the city right after graduate school: Catholic Charities. Then from there, I went to work with the District government. And now I’m back at a nonprofit. I’ve always been interested in women and children and families. I’m a clinical social worker by training. And that has been my passion for all of my life.
Can you tell me how long House of Ruth has been in existence?
House of Ruth has been around for 45 years now. It started in 1976, housing 8 women in one location. The founder, Veronica Maz, was responding to homelessness in the city for women. At that time, she was a Georgetown University professor. And she was teaching sociology students at Georgetown and she brought them for a tour of what homelessness really looked like in the city. And she said that on her way back to her car, this gentleman just fell down in front of her. Not thinking, she just stepped over him and kept going to her car.
But she said when she got home that night she could not sleep. She was wrestling all night long thinking about that gentleman, not knowing what was going on with him and the fact that she did not stop to help him. And so she started looking at homelessness a little bit more seriously. She then realized while there were shelters for men, there were no shelters for women at the time. She went on to found not only House of Ruth, but Martha’s Table and SOME (So Others Might Eat).
How has House of Ruth changed over the years?
It has changed considerably because back in 1976, we were only serving women. But of course, as women started to come, they started coming with their children. So we expanded to support women and their children. We have seven housing programs that address single women and we have six housing programs now that address families as a whole.
Of course, when they came with their children we needed to provide services for those children.
30 years ago, we started offering Child Development Services. We have our own child development center. We just built a brand new center over in Ward 7 called “Kidspace.” We serve the children of our clients. And not only the children of our clients but the children of clients from other housing programs as well. And of course, you know, we not only address homelessness, but we also address domestic violence.
We offer a range of supportive services as well in all of our programs. And we have our own counseling center for anyone who is a survivor of domestic violence.
How does someone get involved with the programs and services at the House of Ruth?
They can be referred by any other social service agency. We get a lot of referrals that way. We also have our own centralized intake that any individual can call and inquire for themselves. We are also funded by a number of agencies in the District and through those funding agencies, we get referrals as well.
Is there any kind of circumstance where you wouldn’t help a family?
Basically, if we cannot provide an adequate amount of space to accommodate large families, we will work with our partner agencies that may have additional space for them. We also have a scattered site model, where we work with a number of landlords in the community for additional housing. These are some other ways we work to accommodate larger families.
The programs we run are in our own buildings. We own all of our property. The women that are in those housing programs are in their own individual apartments. These are not shelters, you know, communal services. We’re talking about individual apartments that are decorated and furnished with everything that they need. They walk in the door and everything is there that they would need: clothing, furnishings, household items. It’s important because sometimes women are fleeing domestic violence and they only have the clothes on their back.
I know the House of Ruth is not a shelter system. But in some shelters, the organizations have mandatory requirements. For example, many places require participants to save money or get a job or enroll in a rehabilitation program as a precondition for receiving services. Do you have anything like that at the House of Ruth?
Nothing that we do is mandatory. We work with our clients so that they can empower themselves. We work with them to develop a case plan on the areas that they want to work on. But it’s not mandatory. We may make suggestions and we may make recommendations, but it is their case plan. And we help them to achieve their goals.
What do you see in the future for the House of Ruth that our readers ought to know about?
I’m very excited to tell you that we just purchased our first affordable housing building. One of the things that happens when our families leave us is they want independent housing. But because it’s so expensive to live in the District, they can’t afford to. Once the new building is renovated, our families will be able to move from our program housing into their own independent affordable housing.
What are some other things you would like to share with our readers about the House of Ruth?
There are a lot of opportunities for people at the House of Ruth, not only for our clients and those who need our services but also for individuals that would like to volunteer and make donations as well. We go way above the services that are needed for our families. As a matter of fact, this summer we are providing an opportunity for our children to go to summer camp. As we know, virtual school has caused some of our kids to really suffer in the mental health area. We’re paying for that.
We’re also providing an opportunity for our families to take their children on a weekend trip out of town. We’re going to be taking care of that. We make sure that these families have everything they need to be successful.
And then I think the second thing that I want to say is that we’re also working with our families to move them on to homeownership. That is important.
We’re also connected with a lot of first-time homebuyer programs, and we’re educating our women about and how to get into homeownership. We work with them already in our programs about budgeting, household management savings, and all of that. And of note, they don’t pay anything to be in our housing. These are all free services. This is what we raise money to do. They’re not paying so we encourage them to save while they’re with us. So, they’re with us for a couple of years, and they’re able to save. Most of them have been able to put down deposits and down payments for homes. Then, with the first-time homebuyers program, they support them in a number of different ways. They’re able to then move on to homeownership.
Does anybody ever fail from House of Ruth’s programs? What’s the longest anybody has ever stayed in one of House of Ruth’s programs?
Well, different programs provide for different timeframes. So we have short term programs anywhere from six to nine months. We have programs anywhere from up to 12 months, up to 24 months, and sometimes even longer than that. It is very individualized just like anything else. People come in at different levels and may need more support than others. And so, we have to work with them where they are.
Some families come in and theyhave work experience and so their time with us is short. But others may come in that never have had work experience. So, we’re having to help them to find the careers and jobs that they can get involved in. We don’t have a time limit that says “this is our goal.” Our goal is to make sure that families can be successful. We want them to be successful with us, but more importantly, we want them to be successful when they leave us.