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Homeless female veterans get a safe, soothing home

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. -- The interior came as a surprise, when a door on the second floor of the Clarksburg Mission was opened to reveal the newly renovated living quarters for homeless female veterans.

The three-room apartment is full of light and color. Its furnishings are new, stylish and comfortable. Funky art work hangs on the walls.

Outside the old brick building, men linger on the sidewalk in front of the neon "Jesus Saves" sign. The mission in the Glen Elk section shelters homeless men, women, children and homeless male veterans.

Now with the new accommodations in north-central West Virginia for women veterans who are homeless, "they won't be kicked out during the day," said Tammie Funich, who is with the Veterans Administration in Clarksburg.

Although the VA will pay a per diem rate for housing the veterans, Funich emphasized that no federal money was spent on renovating former mission offices into an apartment for three women. "It was all the Clarksburg Mission and Lotus," she said.

Lotus MacDowell, an artist, is on the mission's board and owns Artworks, a framing and gift shop in Bridgeport.

She designed the apartment's layout and chose the furnishings. And she undertook most of the labor herself except for the plumbing and electrical work. She installed drywall, laid the laminate flooring in the living room and vinyl tiles in the kitchen and bathroom.

Wearing her purple tool belt -- "At least my boys won't borrow it" -- she hung the white kitchen cabinets, secured the faux granite countertop, assembled the beds and hung mirrors and other artwork. She and a crew of five girlfriends primed and painted the walls and cleaned the unit thoroughly.

"I wanted them to know they were appreciated," MacDowell said of the veterans. She bristled recalling some who asked why she didn't just furnish the apartment with thrift-store purchases.

"If you want to make someone feel they matter, why would you get leftover, sorry-looking stuff," she fumed.

MacDowell said, "I wanted something really nice, with soothing colors -- a place where they would want to hang out."

She also kept in mind that as many as three women may be sharing the one-bedroom apartment. MacDowell predicted that three woman using one bathroom might result in congestion, so she installed a mirror with a shelf and stool beneath it in a small alcove next to the bathroom. In a crisis, a makeup mirror can be set up on the bedroom desk.

Each bed has its own reading lamp, and there are three large, lockable, freestanding wardrobes in the bedroom. To provide a little privacy, MacDowell decided to open up but not completely remove the wall dividing the kitchen and breakfast area from the living room.

Funich explained that the apartment is emergency transitional housing. Women may live there for 180 days while permanent housing is being found. The veterans have access to the benefits and programs offered by the Louis A. Johnson VA Hospital in Clarksburg, where there is a separate medical clinic for women.

Recent news articles have focused on the special needs of female soldiers returning from duty and the shortage of safe and welcoming temporary housing for women.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in December that the number of homeless female veterans has doubled -- from 1,380 to 3,328 -- from fiscal years 2006 to 2010.

Funich has served as coordinator for Healthcare for Homeless Veterans for 11 years.

She said there are plenty of beds for homeless male veterans in her region, but it was her quest to find temporary housing for a female veteran that led to discussions with Chris Mullett, director of Clarksburg Mission.

"This board and director make phenomenal things happen," she said.

Public affairs specialist Wesley Walls added, "The mission has gone above and beyond in recognizing the sacrifices made by our veterans."

As a faith-based institution, the mission requires that those who use their shelters attend daily devotions.

With the veterans, Funich said the mission may encourage the women to attend but they can't be made to go to devotions. If the women have had a substance-abuse problem, they will be required to attend a 12-step program of their choice.

MacDowell hopes that by seeing the work of the mission, the women will want to become involved. Funich believes that the women will be encouraged by the example of a successful businesswoman who has given so much back to her community. "Lotus walks the talk," Funich said.

On her part, MacDowell said, "It's been very gratifying to provide something they don't expect but appreciate."

She estimates that the furnishings cost less than $2,000, not including appliances. She shopped at area box stores and at online sites that offer free shipping. She said the ratings from customers really helped in finding durable goods.

The off-white bedroom carpeting was cut from 20,000 square feet of carpet Jack's Friendly furniture store donated to the mission. Starr Furniture contributed 14-inch-thick mattresses for the beds.

When asked how to help, MacDowell tells people they can write a check to Clarksburg Mission to use for the apartment. "There'll always be things that are needed," she said.

Once the VA director has given final approval of the apartment, Funich said she will begin accepting referrals from throughout the state. She said the staff at the Huntington and Charleston VA offices have helped her find placements for her veteran clients.

Funich may be contacted at 800-733-0512, ext. 3585.

More information on Clarksburg Mission may be found at www.clarksburgmission.org.

Reach Rosalie Earle at earle@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5115.


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