DALLAS – Denise Harper was homeless when she showed up at Faith Farm in Dallas. She thinks of that time in terms of what she no longer had: food to eat, possessions (other than the clothing on her back), confidence and health.
What hadn’t been stripped away, however, was the motivation to rebuild her life.
Now, after spending a year and a half at Faith Farm, Harper is almost ready to move on.
Operated by Lutheran Services Carolinas, Faith Farm provides transitional housing for up to seven female veterans at a time. Participants may remain for up to two years, although many are able to transition out after a year and a half.
Open since 2009, Faith Farm recently received the Hope Award from the North Carolina Veterans Administration, given annually to the top VA program for the homeless in the state.
The award is based on the quality of the work being done with participants, including counseling and other support services, as well as success rates of veterans in finding employment and housing.
About half the program’s financial support is provided by Lutheran Services, with the other half coming from the VA.
The women stay free of charge, which makes it easier for them to pay off debts and save money, laying the groundwork for them to live independently.
The large brick ranch-style home on Dallas-Stanley Highway is owned by the Lutheran Support Group of Gaston, Inc., a partnership of 16 Lutheran churches throughout Gaston county.
Harper, who is 56, isn’t hesitant to share her story. She served in the Air Force from 1977 to 1981, working in radio communications.
She was following a path well-blazed by her family: her father was one of the last of the Buffalo Soldiers, and her mother was one of the first African American women crypto-analysts for the U.S. military.
Her experience in the military was a good one, but when she returned home with her husband, whom she’d met and married while in service, he became violent toward her, and she fell into drug and alcohol abuse.
Finally, after 20 years, she got out. “I didn’t walk away from my marriage,” she says. “I had to run.”
The next step was getting clean and sober, which she did in 2004 with the help of a Veterans Administration program.
She then faced a series of trials: both her parents died, and she began having health issues, including osteo-arthritis, which meant she could no longer handle her factory job.
Things began to unravel. She found herself homeless, spending her nights at Rowan Helping Ministries in Salisbury.
Late in 2011, with the help of the Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury, she found a place at Faith Farm.
There she received counseling and support and got a much-needed hip replacement. Although she can’t work because of her health issues, she’s been saving the disability benefits she now receives in anticipation of getting her own place to live in Yadkinville, where she has relatives.
With the help of some Christian counseling, she says she’s repaired her relationship with her sons and is working on rebuilding trust with her daughter. “I wasn’t the best mother,” she admits. “But I’ve become a good mother and grandmother.”
Her time at Faith Farm has brought her a renewed sense of faith. “God brought me here for a purpose,” she says. “I did the footwork, but God did the hard work. It’s wonderful here,” she says. “It’s been a journey.”
Such success stories at Faith Farm are the rule, not the exception.
Judy Johnston, who began managing the home in 2010, took over as program director in November of 2012. She brings the experience of running a group home for teenage girls in Charlotte.
She takes the women to their appointments and helps them get connected with services they’re eligible for.
But Johnston is there for more than just logistics. She provides a calm, nurturing presence, gently reminding the women they are worthy of respect.
“It takes a lot of caring and understanding,” she says. “These women have been persecuted and devastated. Some of them have depression. They’ve lost jobs and homes and have no one to turn to help.”
She points out that a lot of homeless female veterans have been victims of sexual trauma in the military, including current resident Marjie Pratt, who is only recently dealing with the PTSD that resulted from abuse that she suffered back in the 1970s.
Resident Tonya Maynor, who has a degree from culinary school, also suffers from PTSD. She was acclimating well to civilian life after her second tour of duty in Iraq but ultimately found herself battling insomnia and flashbacks.
Johnston points out that people might be surprised by who ends up homeless. Program participants have included registered nurses, a physician’s assistant and an appraiser. Nationally, returning servicewomen are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population, according to a recent article in the New York Times.
Johnston wants people to understand that “shelter” is not an accurate description of Faith Farm, which offers not just a bed but the means for women to get their lives back, whether it’s helping them to find employment or making them aware of veterans’ benefits for which they qualify.
Residents are well-prepared to be self-sufficient when they transition out.
“We don’t recycle people here,” Johnston said. “When they leave, they’re ready to leave.”
It takes about four to six months for the women to get stabilized and adjusted to the new environment, says Johnston, who helps the women set up treatment plans.
While they are at the home, women focus on five goals: physical and emotional health, housing, job placement, school, and reconnecting with family and friends.
The women also go out and do community service, says Johnston, who also encourages them to pursue any healthy interest that makes them feel good about themselves.
Maynor, for example, not only paints and knits but often travels to Charlotte with her saxophone to perform as a street musician.
Since Johnston has been at Faith Farm, 20 women have successfully transitioned out of the program, she says.
“They always go out blessed, with a stable, rebuilt life,” she says.
If you’d like to help support Faith Farm’s mission, please call 704-922-3393.
Katie Scarvey is communications specialist for Lutheran Services Carolinas.