From Homeless to Self-Employed
A first-of-its-kind San Francisco project launches women in business
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.