Karen is homeless. On this night though, she has a warm place to rest her head.
“If I didn’t have this, I’d be out on the street sleeping on a bench or something,” said Karen, a guest at the Women’s Hospitality Network.
Instead of a park bench, Karen’s sleeping inside of the Second Baptist Church of Asbury Park. It’s part of the newly-formed Women’s Hospitality Network that’s compromised of five churches in and around Asbury Park. Together, parishioners and volunteers offer emergency housing for single women seven nights a week during the coldest months of the year, December through March. It’s a place where they enjoy a hot meal, sing by the piano, play games or just talk.
“We believe that housing is a human right and no one should be living on the street,” said Women’s Hospitality Network Co-Founder Derek Minno-Bloom. “I think the idea is, we build a relationship with them and know what they need. And the hope is after the three or four months they stay here, that they have housing.”
“I was homeless myself, so I understand what these ladies are going through,” said Women’s Hospitality Network Co-Founder Dominiqueca Jones.
It all started a year ago, when Minno-Bloom of Trinity Church and residents who experienced homelessness themselves came together. They realized there weren’t enough beds for homeless, single women looking for shelter, so they reached out to local churches and created the network. They modeled their program after a similar network in Freehold.
“Sometimes you’re scared knowing where your meal is. Sometimes you’re scared to know where you’re going to lay your head. Sometimes as a female, you have to be careful where you go,” said Brittany, a guest at Women’s Hospitality Network.
Brittany says she’s so grateful for the network. Guests are welcome to rotate from church to church all week long, and Minno-Bloom says they’re also able to meet with a social worker at some of the congregations.
Members of Second Baptist Church donated 15 new cots, sheets, blankets, pillows, towels and more, and other organizations in the community donated products like deodorant, soap and toothpaste. The women are given the items and are able to take the products with them from church to church.
“Every other church that’s part of this has really taken us in as a family. When all other stuff goes down, they actually sit down with us, eat dinner, spend time with us, ask if we need toiletries, and God knows what else. They really mean from the heart that we care,” said Brittany.
“They just need a lot of love. They come here, and you can’t look down on people when they’re coming to you in this situation. Like my daughter says, you got to love the hell out of them,” said Deacon Daniel Harris.
Church members say it’s their duty to help those who can’t help themselves.
“I’m blessed to be able to help someone, to give them a smile, to help them make their bed, to just give them some words of encouragement, let them know it’s OK,” said Deacon Mary S. Owens Scott.
Volunteers with the nonprofit, Food Not Bombs, warm up the dinner they’ve prepared for the guests.
“As a community, we can come together and help, not only recover the food that would otherwise go to waste, but then redistribute it, prepare it and offer it to people that can use it,” said Paul Brown, a volunteer with Food Not Bombs.
Before arriving each evening, the women call a hotline number to check-in and be screened. In the morning, they’re given a light breakfast and leave with sandwiches, snacks and a little encouragement from Women’s Hospitality Network Co-Founder Joseph Brown, who used to be homeless himself.
“Keep on moving, keep on pushing. Don’t give up. There’s people out here that will help you,” said Brown.
Network coordinators say being homeless should not define these women.
“We have some people in the network who are very talented and they’re here because of mental health issues and just need a little support to reconnect and get back control of their lives,” said Women’s Hospitality Network Coordinator Kareen Kircher.
Both Karen and Brittany have housing vouchers and are looking for apartments, though they say they’ll always feel as if they have a home of sorts in these churches.
“It doesn’t feel like a shelter, it feels like a whole community that cares about everybody,” said Kircher.