Upstart local nonprofit aims to eradicate homelessness

Upstart local nonprofit aims to eradicate homelessness
Left to right: The One Commandment team consists of Catrina Lydon, Jasmine McGhee, Christie Shaw and Debbie Smith-Harris.

By Olivia Anderson |

Although a variety of programs exist nowadays to support those experiencing homelessness, what happens to a woman who isn’t financially insecure enough to qualify for governmental assistance but still sleeps in her car each night? Or the woman who has earned her college degree but is routinely laid off from contract position after contract position?

Christie Shaw, founder of one of the city’s newest nonprofits, One Commandment, knows firsthand that this kind of woman often falls through the societal cracks, going overlooked and unnoticed in a sea of ostensibly higher-need individuals.

An intimate awareness of this constant neglect is what precipitated the creation of One Commandment, Shaw’s Alexandria-based nonprofit organization dedicated to eradicating housing insecurity for a very specific demographic: single, middle-aged women.

The organization caters to women who are considered “low-need” individuals, which is a research term that comprises those who are not outwardly experiencing mental illness, drug abuse, physical abuse or extreme poverty.

This specific set of circumstances results in what is termed the “hidden homeless:” a lesser-known group of women, generally between the ages of 40 and 60, who have little to no savings but have maintained a career trajectory most of their lives and became unemployed by no fault of their own.

Many of these women don’t look homeless, which may stem from a variety of different factors. For example, maybe a woman has children or family members who rely on her for help and financial support.

“Now that she’s in need, one, they don’t even comprehend it, and two, they can’t help her, because she’s been the one helping them,” Shaw said.

Then, there’s managing the outward appearance of homelessness. A large swath of this population is educated and has held professional positions, fueling the desire to maintain a presentable facade to increase the likelihood of securing a job, according to Shaw.

The goal of maintaining that facade and constantly fighting to not appear homeless in order to viably compete in the corporate arena, while understandable, actually furthers the stigma and invisibility of the issue, Shaw said.

“It hardens her to not want to confront anyone for help,” Shaw said. “She exists, and she exists everywhere. She’s at Shoppers, she’s at the nail salon, she’s definitely at Starbucks, and I know her intricately, because I was once her.”

Years ago, after she was laid off from her job, Shaw found herself couch surfing or sleeping in her Acura most nights. As someone with a college degree who had maintained a steady job most of her life, Shaw said this wasn’t a situation she had foreseen for herself. Therefore, she didn’t know how to properly navigate it since she didn’t qualify for any of the government assistant programs, nor did she want assistance from them.

“Maybe it’s a matter of pride, but maybe it’s a matter of self-preservation [and] wanting to maintain a quality of life as well,” Shaw said.

Shaw eventually found stability through her subsequent 30 years of work in human resources, a decade of which was spent as a recruiter. During that time, Shaw became even more conscious of the many middle-aged, single women who had gone through similar levels of housing insecurity.

Having worked so deeply within the hiring process, Shaw said she witnessed the “dark side” of how many organizations operate, which often consists of slowly replacing aging women who have become “a burden” on the organization’s health insurance policy. This may include finding nitpicky faults and reducing a woman’s workload, ultimately phasing her out of her job.

Shaw’s own story, her many years of work in H.R. and the COVID-19 pandemic, which she said “exposed and pulled back the curtain” hiding the systemic ways women are adversely impacted, all came together to create the perfect storm that birthed One Commandment.

“[The pandemic gave me] time to think, to process and to reevaluate my life,” Shaw said. “For me, there was nothing better than to be shut in due to a global pandemic and to then have to ask myself, ‘What is your contribution?’”

Shaw said she realized the hidden homelessness crisis among women deserved a spotlight.

“[It seems] that in the United States, we have to see everything through the lens of disadvantage or extreme poverty or abuse or addiction before we deem it noteworthy or newsworthy or help-worthy,” Shaw said.

The organization hopes to change this by shining a light on the ageism, racism and gender bias toward middle-aged women, advocating for legislation and garnering partnerships to aid in closing the gap between pay equality and housing insecurity.

One Commandment offers housing assistance in order to keep women with low needs who are going through job loss or reduced wages in their current residences. It also provides rental payments for women who have recently lost employment because of an affirmed layoff or company reorganization.

Ultimately, the goal is to spread awareness about a pervasive issue that continually flies under the radar.

Debbie Smith-Harris, who serves on the board of directors and as treasurer of the One Commandment, said that she didn’t know hidden homelessness was an issue until Shaw shared her anecdotal experiences with housing insecurity and in the weeds H.R. work.

“This is something that was totally out of my purview … my experiences are so different,” Smith-Harris said. “It was nothing I ever saw or see; I guess that’s why it’s hidden.”

Smith-Harris said that while the organization is new – it’s only been in existence since March – she views empathy as a driving force in affecting long-term, enduring change.

“I can’t even imagine being housing insecure. I haven’t lived it … but having compassion – I’m single, I’m in my 60s. What if I had no idea how I could live, or I was forced to be in some unsafe environment simply because I don’t make enough money to live somewhere decent? Something’s just wrong with that,” Smith-Harris said.

As the country continues to emerge from the pandemic, the One Commandment team is reaching out to community members through social media and door-to-door canvassing in order to fundraise and get the word out on what Shaw calls a “growing crisis.”

This year, the organization has garnered enough money to offset certain smaller expenses for several women, but it hasn’t yet secured the donations to provide housing.

By 2022, Shaw said she aims to service at least three women with $15,000 to $20,000 for housing while they find work.

“We’re going to do it; it’s going to happen,” Shaw said.

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