There is an assumption in this country that in order for someone to be homeless, they have to have done something wrong. There’s a belief that the person was lazy, that they made irresponsible decisions, that they don’t want to work. And more often than not, that is not the case. In actuality, when it comes to homlessness in New York City, the people disproportionately affected look like and are like you and me. They are Black women, who are often working while attempting to raise children.
Women are more severely impacted by homlessness because of the wage gap, being siloed in jobs that don’t offer as much in terms of compensation, and taking on the financial burden of raising children. Factors like pregnancy and domestic violence also contribute to the number of women and Black women in the shelter system.
Recently PepsiCo’s philanthropic organization, partnered with the Bronx’s Women In Need shelters (WIN)— the largest shelter for homeless families in New York City— to open a job training resource center dedicated to helping economically empower homeless women in the Bronx.
We spoke to Charlene Denizard, Director of Global Citizenship & Sustainability at PepsiCo about her role in the opening of these centers, misconceptions about homeless and what we all can do to help below.
Achieving economic independence for women is one of PepsiCo Foundation’s core priorities. And in particular, we specifically invested in WIN income building program. WIN is one of the most outstanding non profits in New York City. Unfortunately, the homelessness issue is escalating. But WIN is one of the organizations that addresses that because 70 percent of New York CIty’s homeless are families and 9 out of 10 of those families are headed by women.
What we developed with WIN—we were actually the initial founding funds of their income-building program. Our arm is specifically toward helping women not just gain employment because a lot of these women are employed but they’re not making a wage or they don’t have benefits or they don’t have access to additional services they need to go out into the workforce and make a living wage and really stand on their own two feet and get out of shelters. So what we really wanted to focus on is what we partnered with WIN to create is this program to help them get a better wage, get a better job, get benefits and really receive those things that can help them become independent.
What are WIN and PepsiCo doing to inform general residents of NYC about the true nature of homelessness?
I’ve been at PepsiCo for 19 years but my very first job out of college was working at a homeless shelter. And back then, the face of homelessness in the early nineties was really quite different. It was a lot of single men, mostly. Not a lot of families. And now it’s on trend with economy disparity and other social issues that are happening. I really feel as though we can help to amplify with WIN. There are other things that we’re doing to amplify that message. If you look at our programs, broad scale globally, it’s really helping women. If you help women with families be successful, then those children will then become more successful. If you lift up a woman, you lift up a family. I think that’s true in Africa and I think that’s true in New York City. It doesn’t matter where you are. The women really are the ones holding it down for a bunch of society so it’s really important that we focus there.
I think there is this assumption that people who are homeless are lazy or they’ve done something to deserve being homeless. Can you speak to the idea of the working poor?
Most of the women, the heads of families, who are living in shelters are working. It’s not even in New York City. We’re seeing it all across the U.S. I see it in other urban locations as well. The price of housing has escalated to the point where people can’t afford it. Wages have not increased. It’s a disparity that feels so unfair. There are women who are working 2-3 jobs with kids trying to make it all work and they just can’t make that connection. So I think it’s a mix of people like us, the private sector, coming in, organizations like WIN and also policies to help address the issue as a whole. And I do think there is a big role for all of us to play about communicating what homelessness looks like. There is this sort of perception of what it is.
I’ve done many volunteering events, I’ve organized them, I’ve personally volunteered and spoken to many of these women and I do know that they are dedicated to moving their families forward. They don’t want to be in shelters. Shelter is not a good place. These women want to put roots down and they want to have a place their kids are able to call home and feel safe. Educating the public on it and making sure that every one knows that we have to be a part of the solution is really important.
Can you speak about the services and the skills WIN and PepsiCo aims to teach this group of women?
Our program is really about income building. It’s not about teaching specific computer skills or anything like that. It’s about women improve their job search skills and have availability and the access. There are specific counselors who will meet them where they are. If there is someone who has great skills already but they need access to a job search engine or they need resume services, they will do that. If they need to gain some skills, they’ll help them gain access to some sort of job training. If they just need a supportive ear or encouragement, they’re there for that too.
What is the shelter system like in New York City?
I can speak to what I’ve seen at WIN because I’ve been at several of their shelters. They have ten locations and I will say that they do such a wonderful job to do the best that they can. The trick to do what they’re doing is that people are coming and going and so first of all, they make it safe. And I think for a lot of women who are coming out of domestic abuse situations, security and safety is the number one thing. And they provide that. Then, they provide the necessities. A warm space, a comfortable bed, a kitchenette, all of the things one needs to live temporarily. I’ve seen their particular shelters and how the staff really try to care for and meet the needs of the women there. If there’s something that the women need that they don’t have, the staff really tries to connect them to it. Security, safety, comfort but knowing that we don’t want to make this a permanent thing.
1 in 5 women in New York are living in poverty and in the Bronx, it’s 1 in 3. People of color and African American women are disproportionately affected. (81 percent of the families in WIN shelters identity as Black. And the average monthly income for families in the WIN shelter is $1,670.) I think that’s an underlying truth we all understand. It’s extremely unfair but something we need to address head-on.
If you look at WIN’s reports, you’ll see that last year alone they helped 3,000 women with benefits or increased wage or what have you. I’ve been speaking to one woman, Ms. Scott who has, through the WIN Income Building program, been progressing through her job search, has access to the computer services—because there are things that we take for granted in this city. Fortunately, New York City has come a long way in terms of free wifi. But if you don’t have access to a computer, everything’s online these days. So I think trying to level out some of those inequities has proven helpful.
What can we do to help our fellow women who may be economically disenfranchised in some way?
I think it’s a mater of self education. I think just becoming aware of really the causes are and jumping in. There are great sites like Charity Navigator that can help someone who wants do donate money to a non-profit. The other way is just volunteering. You don’t have to have money. If you want to give a little bit of your time, there are so many volunteer opportunities throughout New York City. You can go into the policy realm as well. Voting and supporting the right candidates is very important as well.