MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - On any given night in the River Region, about 800 people are living in a shelter or on the streets and about half of them are women.
"I think there's a misconception about homelessness," explained Lateasa Hicks, Executive Director at Mary Ellen's Hearth, a transitional housing program for homeless women and children.
"A lot of time it stems from mismanagement of funds or monies," said Hicks. "A lot of time it's fear."Or the other thing I hear all the time is that they're lazy. It's not that they're lazy, it's that sometimes there are other barriers or gaps in services that are needed to get that person to a point where they feel empowered or supported."
That's exactly where Kayla Harris, mother of through, found herself.
"I was a teen mom. I was 15 when I got pregnant," Harris described why she dropped out of high school and how she ended up homeless just a few years later. "I had a car that was paid for, I wrecked it, and now you go from having a budget and a car that's totally paid for to having a whole car note," she remembered. "I had all my boxes packed up and I told my children, 'if the landlord puts us out, at least our stuff will be packed up and it won't be thrown on the side of the road.'"
Kayla and her kids ended up in a shelter for four months, while she worked two jobs still trying to provide all that she could.
"Oh it was a dark, dark time," said Kayla, looking back. "No one told me that in order to live on my own you need to budget your money, you need to manage your money. No one told me that there are resources or programs out there to help you."
That's where Mary Ellen's Hearth meets mothers every day.
"Some come here without education or high school diploma, then we have women who enter our program with nursing degrees," Hicks describes the women in her program.
"We initially come here and we support the women for 30 days," Hicks said. "We allow them to become acclimated to our program." Then they get to work.
"They're charged with remaining employed, community service, they do chores here, they have to attend individuation as well as group sessions," Hicks explains it's about teaching them the skills they need to live independently. "We never want them to think they can't. There may be some obstacles, but then we start creating a family service plan to remove those obstacles. We identify your strengths, we identify your weakness, and then we employ interventions. we're here to do work. we're here to change lives."
"I didn't know what a plan was, I was used to just getting up and whatever happens, happens," Kayla said of her life before homelessness. That's not the case anymore. Kayla and her three children now live on their own, she works as a case manager now at Mary Ellen's Hearth, she's earning a degree in social work and is engaged to be married. "I'm not a victim of my circumstances. I just didn't know. When you know better, you do better."
Mary Ellen's Hearth isn't big enough or equipped, to house every homeless woman with children. It's a ministry committed to taking those it can, and those who want to work for improvement, and changing the lives of every woman who calls it home.
Mothers can stay at Mary Ellen's Hearth for up to two years. About 30 women have graduated from the program since it opened in 2012.
Mary Ellen's Hearth is holding its biggest fundraiser of the year on February 22nd. Christian Comedian Mark Lowery will stop at Saint James United Methodist Church as part of his "What's Not to Love?" tour. Tickets are available at www.marklowry.com and www.itickets.com, or by calling 1-800-065-9324.
Nov. 11 through 19 is National Hunger and Homeless Awareness week.