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Brevard County gets new shelter for women and children

A sign out front of the new shelter building announces the site of Helen's House.
Lillian Hernández Caraballo
Located in Melbourne, Helen’s House is a project of the area’s CITA Rescue Mission. It opened with a soft launch Monday, June 10, 2024, with a mission to provide safe harbor for women and children escaping homelessness.

After years in the making, a new shelter for women and children experiencing homelessness in Brevard County opened its doors for the first time Monday.

Located in Melbourne, Helen’s House opened with a soft launch to receive its first guests with a mission to provide safe harbor for women and children escaping homelessness, a project that the CITA Rescue Mission has been talking about completing since before the pandemic.

CITA, or Christ Is The Answer, is a faith-based organization that’s been serving men experiencing homelessness in Brevard County for more than 50 years.

Other organizations in Brevard serve women and children, but Program Director Tanya Salter said CITA wanted to do its part, especially as the need grows. A 2023 report from the Brevard Homeless Coalition found a 43% over-year increase in women experiencing unsheltered homelessness.

Single women and families with children are the fastest growing groups of people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. According to CITA, in Florida, approximately 85% of homeless families are headed by women, and 51% of their children are under the age of 5.

“There is definitely a need. This is not, ‘Oh, we just want to do this to make ourselves feel good;” it is an actual need here in Brevard County. If you have homelessness among women jumping by 43%, there’s a problem,” Salter said.

A pie chart shows women experiencing unsheltered homelessness in Brevard County went up 43% in 2023.
Brevard Homeless Coalition
The Brevard Homeless Coalition's 2023 Point-In-Time count shows the number of women experiencing unsheltered homelessness in Brevard County went up 43% over the year.

The parcel of land was donated to CITA for the construction of Helen’s House -- as the organization does not take federal, state, or local government dollars. The rest of the cost was covered by contributions. The organization still needs to raise more funds to fully finish this first phase of the project.

Salter said that, about four years ago, the initial projected cost was $1.4 million — after the pandemic, subsequent inflation, and stormwater management requirements, however, the final expenses were closer to $3 million.

According to Salter, the 10,000-square-foot property will eventually expand with the addition of two adjacent buildings of the same size to shelter even more people. For now, the existing building will focus on serving some of the unique issues faced by women living in homelessness, such as single parenting and escaping domestic violence or sex work.

With secured entry, an A.I. security system, and security personnel to protect vulnerable guests, the new shelter offers 32 beds, and each bedroom has a full bathroom, including a room that is fully ADA compliant for older adults or people with disabilities. Each bedroom can house a mother with up to three children or two single women.

The shelter was intended for long term stay, allowing guests for up to two years, as long as they participate in the organization’s five-phase program called Imagine Hope. The goals are to restore, rehabilitate, educate, train, mentor, employ, and empower the women, in that order, so they can be self-sufficient and earn livable wages once they phase out of the shelter.

The organization will even help the women find homes, move out, or furnish their new homes on a case-by-case basis at the end of the program and, optionally, offers to follow up and check in on them after they’ve left the shelter to ensure they are safely and successfully managing their independence.

“I want these ladies to leave here making the most they can make,” Salter said. “That gives them time to really build a safety net, so they're not moving out without a safety net. It’s really just empowering them and giving them the resources that they need to do it for themselves.”

The shelter includes a commercial kitchen, with three ovens, a walk-in pantry and freezer, where the women can work and train under Kaiser University’s culinary arts program. It also has a dining and activities hall with a sewing station, an outside patio, a laundry room, an education center for students and children, and a supply room in the back with clothing, shoes, linens, hygiene items, and other basic necessities.

“We really did try to think of everything,” Salter said. “It’s going to be a challenge. And it's gonna take the whole community to make this happen.”

CITA Executive Director Buddy Morrow said he is beyond words at the completion of Helen’s House and the community’s support. Even though the city and county processes and paperwork threatened to slow down the project, he said perseverance and helping hands made it possible.

“We just feel we’re blessed,” Murrow said. “And when we get through with the whole three phases, we'll be taking care of over 100 women and children.”

Tanya Salter, program director for Helen's House, and CITA Executive Director Buddy Morrow pose for a photo inside the new shelter.
Lillian Hernández Caraballo
Tanya Salter, program director for Helen's House, and CITA Executive Director Buddy Morrow.

Murrow said the shelter offers an additional respite also for people who don’t always meet criteria for admission at other shelters, such as active drug use or smoking. While Helen’s House will have rules, such as no drug use while residing in the facility, a negative drug test is not necessary for initial admission and a 90-day program to quit nicotine products is offered.

Salter said the building passed inspection and is awaiting its Certificate of Occupancy. For now, they have been granted special permission to start moving some of the ladies and children in.

But she said it will be an ongoing effort to get and retain the number of volunteers and funds necessary to keep the shelter running and eliminate some debt they accrued in the process. There is already a waiting list of individuals seeking help and growing.

Salter said the organization hopes to recruit at least 60 volunteers.

Lillian Hernández Caraballo is a Report for America corps member.

Lillian (Lilly) Hernández Caraballo is a bilingual, multimedia journalist covering housing and homelessness for Central Florida Public Media, as a Report for America corps member.
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