3 doorways: The community reach of Opening Doors

Carol Gebhart


If it weren’t for the services of Opening Doors in Dubuque, a women by the name of “Q” most likely would have taken longer to get her life back on a positive path.

“Opening Doors offers hospitality and opportunity to homeless women, alone or with children, who need emergency, transitional or permanent housing and related support services,” explained Carol Gebhart, executive director. “We are a nonprofit organization that provides three doorways of hope. We provide the opportunity for women to claim their own power and become self-sufficient.”

The three doorways refer to the three housing options offered by Opening Doors.

Teresa Shelter offers emergency and extended stay programs. Women at Teresa Shelter do not pay for services.

Maria House offers transitional housing for up to two years.

Francis Apartments are permanent supportive housing that offer income-based affordable housing with support services, a combination that has proven to be effective at ending the cycle of homelessness.

The three have been credited with helping and empowering homeless women and their children since establishing — Maria House in 2000, Teresa Shelter in 2006 and Francis Apartments in 2017.

Q’s Story

“Q” lived at Teresa Shelter for 18 months. Her mental health had gone untreated. That became one of her first goals.

“A bad mental health episode caused me to damage my relationships with friends and family, which affected my schooling,” “Q” explained. “This led to me dropping out of school and moving into an unstable situation. When I got the news that we were going to be evicted, I made the choice to go out on my own.

“Eventually, I made and met goals of finding a job, going back to school and getting a driver’s license. In December, 2018, I graduated from NICC with an Associates of Arts. I’m currently working full-time and planning to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in the near future. I recently got my first driver’s license and with the support of my family, I also own a vehicle.”

“Q” later moved to Maria House for six months, until December 2018 when she moved into the Francis Apartments.

Qualifying residents pay 30% of their income for rent. Opening Doors subsidizes the remaining amount with funding from the McDonough Foundation.

Living at Francis Apartments marked the first time “Q” lived by herself.

“Without the support of staff every step of the way and knowing I had a safe place to sleep every night, I never would have made it as far as I have,” “Q” said. “I now keep my mental health in control. I am continuing my education and have the potential to be promoted at my job. I also have managed to fix most of the important relationships in my life.”

‘A hand up in the world’

Homeless women come to the organization in search of a new life, the officials of the organization said.

“We provide goal-setting and life skills training that enable them to achieve their full potential,” Gebhart said. “We offer a hand up in the world, not a handout.”

Since Sept. 25, 2000, Opening Doors has served more 3,500 women and children through a continuum of services. Residents at Opening Doors meet with a case manager at least twice per week to set short and long-term goals.

Case managers help with everything from sobriety plans to education and employment services, parenting skills, financial literacy, crisis intervention, transportation, applying for state and/or legal assistance and other independent living skills.

Opening Doors also facilitates the “Getting Ahead in a Just Getting by World” program for residents, along with “Promoting First Relationships,” “1-2-3 Magic” and “RentWise.”

The organization collaborates with a variety of community resource agencies to meet the individual service needs of each resident. These services include substance abuse, mental health, domestic violence, housing, behavioral services for children and vouchers for clothing, food, medication and transportation.

In addition, Opening Doors partners with local businesses to provide employment for hard-to-employ residents.

More than a roof over head

The majority of Opening Doors clients come from at-risk groups, organization officials said. They might have been evicted from an apartment, doubled up with friends or family members, moving from place to place, brought in by the police or living on the street.

With a lack of quality affordable housing in the tri-state area and residents struggling to find permanent housing, Opening Doors sought to address this issue in 2017 by establishing the permanent supportive housing program at Francis Apartments.

But Opening Doors believed that the population it served needed more than a roof over head, but staff to guide them as they learn self-sufficiency skills and gain a support network to provide them with opportunities.

Homelessness in particular can be devastating for children, organization officials added. They often fall behind in school, receive inadequate health care and grow up with insecurity and despair. Opening Doors aims to help families break that cycle of homelessness and poverty.

M’s story

“M” entered Teresa Shelter and soon left. She didn’t want anyone “telling her what to do.” She went back to trying to make it on her own and soon had a revelation that doing it by herself wasn’t working.

She thought maybe it was time to allow someone else to help. Since she was not in a stable housing situation, she asked if she could return to the shelter. She became a woman with a mission: Secure a good job, start saving money, commit to sober living, rebuild a relationship with her children and begin believing in herself.

In about one year, she was able to achieve her biggest goal — moving to be near her daughter and her grandchildren. Today, she is in a stable living situation, employed and loving life.

She also became kind of a “house mother” to other shelter residents, encouraging them to accept the help being offered and to not be afraid to believe in themselves.

“M” credits the staff with believing in her before she believed in herself.

“That is part of what we aspire to offer — hope,” Gebhart said. “We do believe every woman is capable of achieving her dreams, and we are committed to helping in any way we can.”

Taking the first step

Contacting Teresa Shelter at 563-690-0086 or via email hlugrain@openingdoorsdbq.org is the first step for homeless women.

“For women following our life skills program, there are opportunities to move to Maria House and Francis House with recommendations from our staff,” Gebhart said. “Opening Doors offers a unique combination of safety and support. Homelessness is a complex issue, and the numbers of women and children seeking shelter have been on the rise. We exist to serve. I like to say our mission can be summed up in one word: Love.”

Jill Carlson is a freelance writer from Madison, Wis.

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