ITHACA, N.Y. — On Tuesday, Lisa Riley is packing up the last of her things from a house that has been a safe haven for the past year. Behind her are many years of addiction, jail and homelessness. Ahead is her own apartment and college.
Since about age 13, Riley was addicted to drugs and alcohol. Riley, who is now 52, started with alcohol, marijuana and cocaine, she said. In her mid-30s, Riley began using opiates, then heroin after an accident. Up until a couple years ago, Riley said she would use a gram to a gram and a half a day.
Riley said she would wake up and a have a “fix” ready, and then spend the rest of her day trying to make money to support her addiction.
“I pretty much ran the streets of Ithaca, New York. I lied. I cheated. I stole for drugs. I never got into prostitution. But I’m lucky I’m not one of the obituaries to be honest with you,” Riley said.
This month, she’s celebrating two years sober.
A Place to Stay
Riley is one of a dozen women so far who have been part of a transitional housing program called A Place to Stay, based out of Catholic Charities. The program is a house in Ithaca dedicated solely to single homeless women.
The idea for the program came from Liddy Bargar, director of the Samaritan Center and A Place to Stay. Bargar said she wanted to create a safe place for women because she saw so many women walk through their doors that were homeless or unstably housed.
She wanted a safe space where women could spend time and get back on their feet and back into the community.
“I was literally seeing a parade of these women daily feeling really desperate and under-served and vulnerable. They’re vulnerable to all kinds of predatory living arrangements … evils of the street if you will,” Bargar said. “I wanted to create a serene place for people where they weren’t going to worry about where they were going to sleep and focus on enriching their lives.”
Bargar said she would see dozens of women in need of shelter, many of which do not show up on traditional homeless counts because they’re “couch surfers.” For various reasons, some were reluctant to go places like the Rescue Mission, she said.
Many people don’t think about how much energy it takes to be homeless or couch surf, Bargar said. Without knowing where their next meal is, where they’ll shower or sleep next, it can be difficult to hold down a job.
“If you ever doubt how much energy it takes to be homeless, take a look at their shoes,” Bargar said. “They’re often worn down. That’s because they’re literally walking around all day just to meet their basic needs.”
Riley was homeless for many years. When she was homeless, she said she would wake up in the morning, use heroin, then go downtown to meet her dealer. She said she would sell drugs or steal to support her addiction.
“I was basically living in a backpack, more or less,” she said. Riley said she would eat maybe once a day. Before she went to jail and then Watertown for treatment about two years ago, Riley said she weighed 89 pounds.
“That was my life for a long time,” Riley said.
A ‘Safe Haven’
Riley was the second client accepted to be a part of A Place to Stay. She moved in after spending 11 months in treatment at the Credo Women’s Intensive Residential Program.
The house the women stay in is located in downtown Ithaca. The two-story house has four bedrooms.
Though the house was once condemned, it was completely renovated. There is a shared living space with a big couch, a TV, a dining room with a desk in the corner with schedules, community resources and a big binder of job opportunities that is updated weekly. An envelope with donated tickets to Cinemapolis is tacked to a cork board.
Though children are not allowed to live in the home, there are lots of toys in the dining room for when visitors, like Riley’s 4-year-old granddaughter, Finley, come by.
Past the dining room is a bright kitchen with white cabinets and a couple plants. Sometimes cooking classes are held at the house held by Cornell Cooperative Extension to teach women about cooking and nutrition.
There are other classes and workshops offered at the home, too, like a writing workshop and yoga.
The kitchen leads to a back porch and big — by downtown Ithaca standards — backyard.
Four women can live in the house at one time, each with their own room.
Women typically stay for about 90 days, though some have stayed just a few days, and Riley has stayed for a year.
So far, 12 women between the ages of 19 and 56 have completed the program.
About 75 percent of women in the program have been in active recovery from substance abuse, Bargar said. To respect the women in recovery, no drugs or alcohol are allowed in the house. There are some other ground rules at the house, too. All of the women are single and children cannot live in the house with them, though visitors are allowed. Overnight guests are not allowed. A woman who works in the program checks in everyday. The women also keep schedules of their daily activities.
Riley said she liked all the structure when living in the house. Riley is not currently employed, but she has a busy schedule going to meetings and volunteering everyday. She has also been accepted to a program at Tompkins Cortland Community College, where beginning in the fall, she will study to be an addiction counselor. Riley said she hasn’t been to school since she was 15 years old.
While women are living in the house and part of the program, Bargar said they are offered individually tailored support services. All of the women work on themselves while there. Some women have educational, employment or family reunification goals. To reach those goals, Bargar said they work with a number of other local agencies.
“Our goal is to increase their community safety net and make sure they feel well-supported in the community. And it has been working,” Bargar said.
While women are living there, they learn how to be a good tenant as well as learn their rights as a tenant. Women who are working are expected to pay 30 percent of their net pay for weekly rent.
Of the 12 women who have completed the program, Bargar said all but one now has independent housing situations.
Many of the women became close when they live there, Riley said, and the “alumna” of the program often stay in touch and come back to the house to visit or for classes.
“You feel a sense of, I don’t know how to explain it, relief almost being here,” Riley said. “It’s like you’re safe, it’s like a safe haven.”
In addition to the physical space being safe, Riley said the support network from Bargar and others involved in the program is immense. Riley said Bargar has been there to help through everything, whether she’s having a bad day and needs support, or when she needed help appealing to get housing.
Bargar said her dream is to expand the program and possibly do another house for women who are re-entering the community from prison or jail.
The program is funded by grants, fundraising efforts and Catholic Charities. A fundraiser is currently going on through the Ithaca Board of Realtors.
Riley said the house has been a sanctuary for women. Though Riley has support from her daughter, and sees her granddaughter every weekend, she said some women don’t have anybody.
“It brings people together,” Riley said. “I have so much gratitude to this house for what this house has done for me.”
On Tuesday, Riley is clearing out the last of her things. After a year at the house, she is moving into her own apartment at Titus Towers. Though Riley said it’s time to go and leave the house, she is sad.
“I’m going to miss this house, I really am,” Riley said.
To learn more about the program, to volunteer or donate, contact Liddy Bargar at (607) 272-5062 ext. 27 or Liddy.Bargar@dor.org.
Featured image: Lisa Riley sits in the dining room of the house that is part of the A Place to Stay program.