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Women alone on street are given hope

The stories that Karen Carman can tell are horrific.

Homeless women, tough but vulnerable, sexually assaulted on the street. A 40-year-old woman, a former soldier, living in an abandoned home with no running water for more than a year because she was too proud to get help. Another who had nothing but a spring coat and too-small sneakers with the backs cut off when she finally sought help in the middle of winter.

Carman knew the stories from her years of working with homeless women. But she didn’t have the research. Without thorough studies to back up the need to help chronically homeless women – not the moms struggling to protect their children, but the women who are alone on the street – it could be a struggle to find the resources to help get them into homes.

“No one’s going to give you money if you say, ‘I just want to help people,’ ” said Carman, director of supportive housing at the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center. “You have to know what you’re talking about.”

Carman was on a quest to build a supportive-housing program geared toward homeless women when she met Laura Mangan from the University at Buffalo at a poverty workshop organized by the Partnership for the Public Good. Mangan’s job is to help professors who do community-based research, and she connected Carman with Thomas Nochajski at UB’s School of Social Work.

Fast-forward six years, and Carman and Nochajski have put numbers behind the stories. Nochajski is finalizing an academic study of chronically homeless women in Buffalo. Carman and the Matt Urban Center have opened a home for homeless women. They hope that Nochajski’s research can eventually be extended into a long-term project to track what works in helping these women permanently stay off the streets.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because sometimes it helps to hear what’s going right.

Poverty in Buffalo can seem like such an intractable problem that it’s easy to just move on and accept that there are two separate worlds in this city – a city with new construction and new hope and a city of poverty and deep-rooted despair.

“Sometimes people think poverty must be this very sort of mysterious and impossible problem; otherwise, a lot would be getting better,” said Sam Magavern, co-director of the partnership. “They don’t realize that there are a lot of reasons why it gets worse, but there are also things that actually do work that are keeping it from being worse than it could be.”

The partnership’s poverty workshop – a one-day event aimed at bringing together the brain power of those who study poverty with those working the front lines to help people in need – is now in its sixth year.

Carman credits the workshop with making the right connections to finally get the research. Nochajski credits Carman for helping him reach women whose distrust and survival tactics can make them hard to even find. “Without her intense purpose and her helping us, we wouldn’t have been able to carry this out,” he said.

There’s no ignoring that there are still some incredibly tough problems in Buffalo. But sometimes it helps to know there is progress.