Healing and Goat’s Milk
  • Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Women veterans who become homeless have friends at Zion Church in Avon, New York. The small congregation offers the veterans a home in its former rectory, and a chance to learn skills in creating beauty supplies.

Since November 2010, the parish has provided transitional housing at Zion House for up to six women at a time. They may stay for as long as two years, though most leave sooner for permanent housing.

“It’s helping them learn how to navigate difficulties,” said the Rev. Kelly Ayer, an Army veteran who serves both as rector of Zion Church and executive director of Zion House. More than 40 women, ranging in age from 25 to 61, have lived in the facility.

Zion House aims to meet a long-term need for women who suffered sexual trauma in the military and eventually found themselves homeless. As long as they abide by house rules, including no drug-taking on the premises, Zion House can be a home base while they get back on their feet.

The project has drawn some high-profile attention. U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) visited in February as she highlighted projects aimed at helping women who serve or have completed service in the military.

On any given night, 58,000 veterans are homeless, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. While women comprise just a fraction of that whole, they are a growing fraction. The number of homeless women vets jumped by 140 percent, from 1,380 to 3,328, between 2006 and 2010, according to a Government Accountability Office analysis of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs data.

The Rev. Mark Stiegler was serving as a part-time VA hospital chaplain and rector of Zion Church when the idea for Zion House took root in 2006. He saw a glaring problem: homeless male veterans could find transitional housing, but nowhere in America did the equivalent exist for female veterans.

Back at the church, Stiegler proposed converting the rectory to transitional housing. In 2010, the VA provided a $96,000 grant for the renovation, while another $50,000 came from donations.

Today’s $150,000 budget for Zion House comes from a combination of VA funding, donations, and sales of Boadicea Spa Products, which residents manufacture from goat milk. This sum covers salaries for the director and a case manager, as well as building maintenance and other expenses.

For women to create stable lives after homelessness, Ayer said, they need to hone practical skills for both home and work. Women at Zion House who do not have jobs work 10 hours a week for Boadicea. That work meets a VA grant requirement, reduces their rent costs, and helps them develop routines at a feasible pace.

“They need a little bit more grace in their work environment than a secular job could afford,” Ayer said. “If they’re missing work because they have a crazy number of appointments, that’s not going to be a big deal for us. If they’re having a bad day and just need to go back to their room, they won’t get terminated for that.”

Involvement in congregational life is not required of Zion House residents, but it can help with healing, Ayer said. Currently three residents participate in an icon-making class that Ayer leads, and two sing in the church choir.

Those vying to escape homelessness find Zion House can be a much-needed oasis. That was the case for Maggie, a 50-year-old who served as a private in the Army. After being discharged, she worked as a livery driver and was attacked. The experience left her too shaken to return to work. Soon she was broke, homeless, and living at a shelter in which drugs and alcohol were rampant.

“I was really having a hard time with it because I wanted my own place,” Maggie said.

When shelter staff learned Maggie was a veteran, they helped her apply for residency at Zion House. There she made connections with the VA, and learned she would qualify for tuition assistance. In December she completed an associate’s degree in substance-abuse counseling.

All told, Maggie spent only eight months at Zion House, but they turned out to be critical for setting her life back on track. She shows her gratitude by volunteering at the church. This summer, for instance, she’s restoring the old oak doors at the entryway.

“I do whatever I can possibly do,” Maggie said. “I’m very grateful.”

G. Jeffrey MacDonald
TLC Correspondent

Image: The Rev. Kelly Ayer and Georgia the goat.

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