From Homeless to Self-Employed

A first-of-its-kind San Francisco project launches women in business

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

DEEP in the heart of one of this city's most culturally mixed neighborhoods, a shiny red-and-black sign announces the newest business on Mission Street: "Irma's Pampanga Restaurant. Filipino and American. Food to go."Inside, owner Irma Bautista stands near the front window, stirring spicy chicken in a wok. A small woman with dark hair and a ready smile, she greets customers warmly, interrupting her cooking to dish up Filipino specialties. "When I first came to the United States in 1989, I told my father-in-law I wanted to do a business like this," Ms. Bautista says happily, gesturing past the stove to an eating area that includes five tables and nine red stools along a counter. "But he told me it costs a lot of money." A year ago, money and a restaurant of her own were improbable dreams for Bautista. Her marriage had failed, and she and her two children were living in a shelter for battered women. That experience proved to be a turning point. A counselor at the shelter told Bautista about a pilot project to help 10 recently homeless women start small businesses. Bautista applied, and after a round of interviews, was accepted before Christmas. The program, the Homeless Women's Economic Development Project, is the first of its kind in the nation. It operates as the joint effort of two local nonprofit groups, the Bay Area Women's Resource Center and the Women's Initiative for Self-Employment (WISE). The Roberts Foundation, a local philanthropy, provides more than $180,000.

High homeless population With nearly eight homeless people for every 1,000 residents, San Francisco has a higher concentration of homeless people than any American city except Washington, D.C. Their ranks includes many women and children. Last November and December, staff members solicited applications by distributing flyers and placing an ad in a local newspaper for the homeless. They also invited supervisors at shelters to identify women who possess what Jacky Spencer-Davies, associate director of the Bay Area Women's Resource Center, calls "the drive and the initiative and the dream to become self-employed." Claudia Vizcarra, a business consultant at WISE, notes that the participants reflect the diversity of the homeless population. Some hold college degrees. Others have business backgrounds. By January, all 10 women had moved to permanent housing. With rent, transportation, and child care subsidized, they attended classes in marketing, finance, and technical training at WISE. Later they presented business plans to a loan committee. At the same time, the women - seven of whom had experienced domestic violence - received emotional support through regular meetings at the women's resource center. As Miriam Ellard, a program coordinator for WISE, explains, "Once you've been homeless, you feel very isolated. They feel like they're wearing a scarlet banner that says, m a homeless person. I'm different. To minimize any perceived differences, staff members held special events to "get some smiles back on people's faces," as Ms. Ellard puts it. One workshop centered on self-esteem. "Living with domestic violence on a daily basis doesn't do much for your self-esteem," Spencer-Davies notes. Midge Wilson, director of the Bay Area Women's Resource Center, persuaded a celebrity hairdresser, Mr. Lee, to give each woman a makeover. "They treated us like society ladies," one participant remarked later. Three women dropped out for personal reasons. Two decided to seek jobs. One is taking an intensive course in jewelrymaking, and four are starting businesses. In October, Jane Leonard began selling large-size women's clothing and a line of jewelry to retail stores. She sold $13,000 in merchandise her first month. "I think that'll be my slowest month," Ms. Leonard says, noting that she did it "the hard way" with no car, no dress rack, not even a business card or briefcase. But doing things the hard way is nothing new to Leonard. When she was in her first year of law school and pregnant with her second child, her husband left. After seven years of struggling to keep afloat, she lost her job last year when the maternity shop where she was working closed. Three months later, she was homeless.

Nicaraguan transplant Another group member, Yvania Centeno, now operates a dressmaking and alterations business in her family's apartment. It is an outgrowth of a small enterprise she started in her native Nicaragua, where she sewed dresses at home and her mother sold them. Mrs. Centeno, who earlier lost her apartment because of expenses involved in getting her husband to the United States after her own harrowing journey, has received a $5,000 loan from the project for new sewing machines. "I never thought that I would have my own business," she says. "Someday I want to have a shop." In January, Cristina Bernardino will open a family day-care center. A year ago, she arrived at an Asian women's shelter with $15 and the clothes she was wearing when she left her abusive husband. Now she smiles as she talks about her new home-based venture, Little Fingers Day Care. "I love children so much," Ms. Bernardino says softly. "I hope next year will be my year." Already she and the others are finding unexpected rewards. "One of the amazing things that has come out of this is how much of a family they are to each other and how much support they give each other," says Spencer-Davies. "They worry about each other. They call each other for help. That's amazing, because they are from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds and wouldn't necessarily be drawn to each other." That mutual support took tangible form in the days preceding Bautista's opening. One Saturday, everyone met at the restaurant to paint and clean. Leonard used her rental car to drive Bautista on errands. Centeno made tablecloths. Still, no one is pretending that the road ahead will be easy. As Leonard admits, "For each of us, there have been times when we have wondered, 'Are our problems really too big to allow us to pull this off? "They're still living on the edge," adds Spencer-Davies. "I think that's going to change, but it's a slow process. We never did want to solve all their financial problems. We just wanted to relieve them of the more pressing financial needs to allow their business ideas to flourish." Based on their initial success, organizers plan to expand the program in 1992, to between 14 and 20 women. "One of the things we've learned is that people are motivated," says Vizcarra. "They have a lot of potential." For their part, these once-homeless pioneers remain optimistic that they will succeed. Bautista speaks for others in the group when she sums up her hopes. As she stands at her stove surveying her culinary kingdom, she says, "I can't believe I'm here. I don't have anything. But in this program, nothing is impossible. Everything is possible."

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