The YWCA Billings plans to construct apartments to help domestic-violence victims and others find affordable housing.

By Chris Rubich

Mary* knew the pain of domestic violence, but she just couldn’t break away.

“I tried to leave him a few times. It was hard. You have no place to go, no resources,” she recalled.

In a courageous choice, she left her two young children with their father – he only abused her – and took the first step toward change.

Mary found herself sleeping in parks until she saw a woman who pointed Mary to the HUB, a drop-in center that is run by the Mental Health Center. There, a worker referred Mary to the YWCA’s Gateway for domestic-violence victims and their children.

After being interviewed by YWCA personnel, she was accepted into the program and given a room with a security code and a kit with shampoo and other toiletries, as well as bedding.

“I was really thankful,” Mary said. “I had a job within a couple of days. They really helped me get on my feet.”

Help included finding appropriate work clothes and learning bus routes.

At Gateway Mary had two beds, along with other necessities; she used a shared kitchen to cook.

After three months at Gateway, Mary now rents a four-bedroom home, is reunited with all of her children and is saving to buy a car.

Her 2-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter participate in the school readiness program in the YWCA Child Center. Now that Mary ended her relationship with her abuser, she and her teenaged daughter, who was living out of state, have also reunited.

“I felt like just giving up on life” before Gateway, she said. “I don’t know what I would have done – I didn’t even have a car to sleep in.”

Breaking the cycle of abuse has now allowed Mary and her children to live together safely as a family unit.

Safe haven

Mary sees a strong need for the YWCA’s planned Gateway Vista affordable housing development. She noted that Section 8 (a subsidized rent program) have long waiting list and domestic-violence victims may need more time to rebuild their lives than Gateway can offer.

Merry Lee Olson, YWCA CEO, said that those are two key reasons that the organization opted to commence fundraising for the 24-unit Gateway Vista apartments.

The three-story building will go up on a one-block site at what would be 10th Street West and Yellowstone Avenue – just west of the existing YWCA playground.

A subterranean area will hold mechanical equipment and storage, while the first floor will include offices, a computer room and laundry.

Exterior amenities will include a play area, barbecue, car plug-ins and green space. The apartments will comply with the Americas with Disabilities Act.

Cheryl and Michael Burke of HSFA Architects donated their time and skill for the initial concepts and drawings for the $4.5 million project.

Olson, who came to the YWCA as CEO in 2012, said, “It became evident that” an affordable-housing project “would be the next level of service that we should have.”

Gateway allows violence victims to remain up to 12 weeks on any given stay, and they can return later. But some need more assistance and time to pull their lives together, or they may end up back with their abusers simply because they have no long-term housing or resources.

“They can come up to a dozen times before they decide to break away from the violence,” Olson noted.

The Vista will have an employment training center, case management and access to the YWCA Child Center.

As the women deal with the trauma in their lives, many also are learning new skills for the first time – whether budgeting for a home or having their first jobs.

“They’re often starting from scratch,” Olson said.

Gateway Vista will have 11 one-bedroom units with an open kitchen/living area and bathroom in 582 square feet. The 13 two-bedroom units will cover 872 square feet each.

Olson notes that architecture, engineering and permitting for the project have been completed, and construction could start this spring if funding is in place.

The project, she says, is a regional one, as Gateway House serves Yellowstone and surrounding counties as well as Indian reservations.

* Editor’s note: Gateway operates with a confidentiality promise therefore, Mary is a pseudo-name.