Tina Carter kept the first paycheck from her job at Burger King in a plastic file folder in her motel room. It was for $46.25, one day of work.

Carter, 41, hadn't opened a bank account in Missoula until this month because she never had enough money to need one. Last year, she and her daughters, Kaitlyn-Rose, 7, Serena-Jo, 9, and Tabitha, 13, lived in a trailer with Tina's boyfriend.

In November, her boyfriend got locked up. One month later, she lost her public assistance for January, February and March.

"I wasn't able to pay the lot rent, and then the pipes burst," Carter said.

So Carter, her children and their three turtles landed at the YWCA Missoula. The YWCA put the family up in a motel room, as its caseworkers did last year for an estimated 350 other families in all. (Some 272 families used vouchers for one- to three-day stays through the Gateway program; 79 families used the emergency housing program of 50-day stays.)

Most of the women who find themselves on the doorsteps of the YWCA are homeless because of domestic violence.

This spring, the YWCA Missoula marks its centennial, its 100th year offering shelter to homeless women, children and, more recently, men. Carter, a single mom and survivor of domestic violence, is one modern face of many who will seek help from the nonprofit in its milestone year.

Every day, the YWCA Missoula supports families in crisis. On the best days, it helps set women free.

*****

The mission is one executive director Cindy Weese wants the nonprofit to continue for another 100 years. So to mark its centennial, even as federal cuts gut its emergency housing budget, Weese plans to bolster the YWCA's programs and finances to prepare for the next century.

"I think what will always be the same is that the YWCA will keep its finger on the pulse of the community to respond to the emerging needs of women, and those have changed significantly over the past 100 years," Weese said.

In its early years, the YWCA Missoula sought out women who might not have known they were headed for trouble.

Trains would rumble into the station in the early 1900s, and young women looking for work would spill out, said Sheila Callahan, who learned the history of the YWCA as a former board member. An anemic economy had dried up jobs in rural areas, and women flocked to the cities to answer ads for "domestic help."

"What they were finding out when they got here is there weren't any jobs except as prostitutes," said Callahan, who emceed the YWCA's annual luncheon this year and in years past.

The women from the YWCA knew the ruse, so they met the trains to prevent their younger sisters from being enslaved as prostitutes. They helped the women find real jobs.

A 1912 Missoulian article quoted in a booklet called "Facing Life Squarely: A Short History of the Young Women's Christian Association of Missoula, Montana," notes the early attention the organization paid to preparing women for the work force.

"One of the first steps taken ... was the establishment of an employment agency, in order to assist strange girls or anyone in need of aid, in obtaining work," reads the book by Mary McDorney. The stock market crash opened the floodgates in 1929 and 1930: "Several young mothers came to the Y with the word that their husbands had left them, or were out of work. The list of women looking for work had reached 76 by December, but the Y had no way to find work for them."

In times of war, the YWCA did its best to support servicemen and families, Callahan said. In times of peace, it prepared women for adulthood: "They felt like they were trying to prepare young women for a role in society. They would be the caregivers and the mothers and the wives. They would have a civic role."

In the 1960s and 1970s, the women's liberation movement shifted the mission. Young women coming out of the University of Montana's women's and gender studies program wanted to see the YWCA take on an ugly but unspoken scourge.

Said Callahan, "There was a completely different attitude about domestic violence at that time: ‘Really, women should know better, and if they did get beaten, they probably did something or said something to deserve it. But it was her business and his business.' The police certainly didn't want to get involved. The community didn't see itself as having a role."

But the YWCA did. Feminists shaped its mission, and in the 1980s the organization began offering 24-hour domestic violence crisis assistance.

The same women's liberation movement nearly drove a stake through the nonprofit in the late 1980s. Activism coupled with the private nature of the YWCA's work branded it as a place men weren't welcome.

"It was so feminist, they wouldn't let men in the building," Callahan said of the sentiment at the time.

State funding was threatened when Sharon Johnson took the helm of the foundering agency. As the death knell sounded, Johnson saved critical grant money and created a local base of support that had not existed for some time, Callahan said. She righted the listing nonprofit, set it on its modern course, and other "outstanding" leaders followed her footsteps.

"She was an enormously gifted leader. She literally turned that around on a dime," Callahan said.

*****

Today, the YWCA Missoula, an affiliate of the international YWCA, has a mission to eliminate racism and empower women. Here, it runs programs such as leadership classes for young girls and housing for women leaving violent partners.

Domestic violence is the No. 1 reason women find themselves on its doorsteps. In 2009, the YWCA's safe house in a secure location sheltered 109 adults fleeing abuse and 105 children.

Domestic violence also is common in the lives of women who turn to its transitional and emergency housing programs, called Ada's Place. It's the top reason women in Montana are homeless, according to the YWCA.

Carter wasn't in the throes of abuse when she came to the YWCA, but violence cuts through her relationships like the music box that sliced her leg once when a vicious partner attacked. One man burnt her daughter with a cigarette. He raped Carter, kicked her when she was pregnant and shot her up with drugs.

"He used to beat the crap out of me," Carter said. "I got scars on my legs from him throwing things."

Some 95 percent of the women in the YWCA's transitional housing program are homeless because of domestic violence, said Patty Murphy, program director for Ada's Place. She said it takes a woman five or six times on average to leave an abuser for good.

"The difficult thing is they love the man they're leaving," Murphy said.

When the women who work at the YWCA talk about helping people leave abusive homes, they use the phrase "set free," or "setting free." Staff don't accept everyone into the transitional housing program because some women are not ready to break away.

"We want to make sure the women are really ready to be set free," Murphy said.

It's easy to hope that once free, they will find a new purpose or direction in life, maybe push their children into college. But Callahan said it takes great courage for women to leave and can take years for them to recover from fear and the loss of self-esteem. And nowhere is it written that women who don't want to be beaten should have to run for president - or achieve something out of the ordinary.

"A lot of them never wanted it. They just wanted a quiet, happy life of domestic bliss. They wanted a husband who went to work and came home and took care of them. It's not fair to presume upon them that because they don't wish to be beaten, they change their desires," Callahan said.

Carter wanted a home, even an apartment with just a couple of rooms. She wanted to walk into a kitchen filled with natural light, and maybe a yard for chickens. At the YWCA Missoula, she found women who understood.

*****

The stories of the women who reach for a lifeline at the YWCA don't all end in yards with chickens, in fairy tales, and the staff doesn't cast them as such.

The YWCA provides the only emergency shelter for homeless families in Missoula. Sometimes, the motel room is just a respite for 50 days, and families don't find permanent homes. They are back where they started.

Sometimes, the time is too short. Murphy, program director, said 50 percent of the families in the emergency housing program do move into permanent housing: Of those, some 20 percent go with friends or family and 30 percent find their own places. The other half of the families are still homeless, although Murphy said the statistics may be skewed because some are just a week or two away from their own place when the 50 days is up.

Sometimes, women in the secure shelter return to abusive partners. And Melissa Hawley, a program coordinator, said the YWCA can't force a decision on a woman because she wouldn't learn for herself why the relationship isn't healthy.

"In all reality, women that go back time and time again, they're just not ready to be set free, and that's OK," Hawley said.

And yes, some families are a drain on resources, and others test the resilience of the people who help them. For Hawley, the cold months with long waiting lists are the worst.

"Families look at you, and they cry, and they say, ‘What do I do? What do I do?' " Hawley said. "I don't have the answer. I have to say, ‘I don't know.' You go home to your life and you're comfortable. It's hard to not think about that family you couldn't do anything for."

Last winter, Callahan remembers hearing one staff member talk about being at a loss to help a single mom and three children when all the motels were full: "The only thing I could do for her was to give her warm snowsuits for the kids so that they wouldn't freeze sleeping in the car."

*****

Many, many more clients are motivated to get back on their feet. Some find a home well before their 50 days come to an end, and some come back as volunteers at the YWCA.

One of Hawley's favorite success stories is a woman who was homeless for months before entering one of the nonprofit's programs. She had a violent ex and was about to have a baby. The YWCA helped her find an apartment, and Hawley helped her plan her escape routes if the man ever came to the door.

She went to counseling, rebuilt her relationship with her family, got accepted to college, and found a home through the Missoula Housing Authority. Her self-esteem turned around.

"It really was a huge journey for her, and I was, of course, extremely happy that I was able to participate in that journey and help facilitate the goals that she was wanting to accomplish," Hawley said. "She did all the hard work."

She said some families do the same hard work but find no reward. And the economy is driving many people who have never used help before to the doorsteps of the YWCA.

Roxann Tome manages the Southgate Inn, where the YWCA has motel rooms. Not long ago, she saw a couple with a nice car pull up. She said they looked like they had money.

Today, the women at the YWCA are seeing children of people who used the shelter a generation ago come back as adults. Their children are the adults of tomorrow, and they're the reason the YWCA cleaves to its hard, hard work.

Society benefits when it gives those children the opportunity to do more, even if more isn't something their parents want, Weese said. Keeping children housed helps prevent the educational and emotional disturbances that spur poverty for another generation.

"That helps the community, and it strengthens the community," she said. "It also creates opportunities for children to grow into citizens of our community who are productive, who aren't struggling all the time, who may not take a path of crime because they've had an opportunity in their life for support."

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller @missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com. Photographer Linda Thompson can be reached at 532-5270 or at lthompson @missoulian.com.

 

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