Chicago Shelter More Than Just a Band-Aid for Healing the Homeless

A Safe Haven helps homeless in sudden or chronic social and financial crisis, addressing the root causes to achieve sustainable self-sufficiency
May 9, 2016 3:00 PM ET

One look at the brightly colored mural on the brick wall, the tall glass windows and colorful landscaping around the exterior and it is clear A Safe Haven is not just a homeless shelter, but a solace for its residents and visitors. A Safe Haven strives to combat homelessness and poverty by providing more than just a free meal or bed to sleep at night, but the chance to move forward. As a result of support provided by Baxter and the Baxter International Foundation, their wrap-around services, such as job training and academic preparation, now also include a healthcare assessment to improve access to patient care. Through this comprehensive approach, A Safe Haven is truly the foundation for crafting a new life.

“What we are doing here is really about instigating a paradigm shift in the way our nation addresses the issues of poverty,” Neli Vazquez Rowland, founder and president of A Safe Haven, said. “By providing our residents with education and employment opportunities, we are addressing the causes of their homelessness at the root level, not acting as a Band-Aid but as an enabler of permanent solutions.”

In looking for ways to give back, Neli realized there are multiple reasons why someone falls into crisis, and it’s essential to assess the individual from a variety of angles before they begin the transition from being in-crisis to self-sufficient. A Safe Haven was her solution to providing a safe and secure environment to undergo this transformation with resources for health safety, academic structure and job training.

“A Safe Haven Foundation is built on a culture of caring and a sense of family,” Neli said. “Those that we serve are from all types of backgrounds. Whether they suffer from drug or alcohol addiction, or have just had a bad run of luck, we are here to help. We ensure the environment is inviting and comfortable for anyone who needs us. From keeping artwork on the walls to the healthy food served, our building symbolizes a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Neli prides A Safe Haven on its ability to do more than just feed someone, but ultimately break down barriers between their resources and ability to deliver and execute successful life skills on all levels. A Safe Haven residents typically stay between 60 and 90 days and are offered several occupational opportunities, including landscaping and catering, as well as interviewing skills, social service counseling or a chance to garner a GED.

A Safe Haven employs 200 people, many of whom are graduates of A Safe Haven programming. Neli notes all employees have a genuine passion for what they’re doing, which is why they go the extra mile, knowing someone once went the extra mile for them.

All residents are required to undergo a health assessment upon arrival with Marian Deese, RN, the on-site nurse, who examines nearly 5,000 people per year. According to Neli, the A Safe Haven model is a holistic approach which would not be complete without a thorough physical examination. The availability of healthcare on-site allows both residents and visitors peace of mind, knowing they’re taking care of all aspects of their life and have all the resources to be successful with A Safe Haven. The clinic allows the opportunity to create real, long-term wellness plans and healthcare coordination; proven methods to reduce recidivism of recurring issues and the rate of emergency healthcare utilization.

“As a nurse at A Safe Haven, you never quite know what you’re going to get,” Marian said, who accommodates everything from vaccinating children before they begin school to treating women who are victims of domestic violence. “One of the residents I had was able to improve drastically as a result of educating her on the importance of incorporating water into her diet. Simple things we take for granted can make all the difference in propelling someone toward a healthy and happy future.”

Marian coordinates additional treatment outside A Safe Haven for those who are in need of specialized care, but she notes the ability to give basic health assessments and provide better care in a holistic fashion are a critical part of helping residents find their way back to independence. She provides individualized care for all patients, abandoning a cookie-cutter approach in order to ensure sustainable self-sufficiency.  

“My role and the impact I can have on our residents go far beyond that of a traditional nurse,” Marian said, “as does the reward and motivation I receive back.”