With a head full of soft dark curls that matched her soft voice, the shy 22-year-old woman known only as “Lex” already had picked out a single bed for herself in the back corner of one of the renovated rooms in the new homeless shelter for women and children Tuesday afternoon.
After being in various transitional facilities to escape drug-addicted and abusive parents in Cobb County, Lex said she finally felt at home in the 99-year-old stately residence now known as Ruth & Naomi House at 2007 N. Broad St. in Rome.
“I’d been bouncing around to different respite places for awhile,” said Lex after having her intake interview with shelter staff. “I was living with my mother and their drug use and verbal and emotional abuse. There’s a family history of that. I’m so glad I have the opportunity I have now to make a better life for myself. I love this house. It’s huge and I love older homes like this.”
Lex is one of a dozen women — some with children — who will now sleep more peacefully with the opening of the shelter that has been in the works for the past 15 months, thanks to people like founder Bill Davies, Executive Director Devon Smyth, Operations Manager Ashley Demonbreun-Chapman, Case Manager Kristen Sheeley and more than 700 volunteers who helped renovate the 6,000-square-foot facility.
Davies, a Baptist minister who has been working on opening such a shelter in Rome since 2003, said he feels it’s in his blood to help others in this way.
“When I was growing up, my family always took in people, many of them relatives needing a place to go,” Davies said, clutching an orange level he was using on one of the last-minute renovation projects in the home that was expected to be at full capacity by that evening. “My father worked in the coal mines in Kentucky, starting at age 12 after immigrating from Wales. He was in those mines for 35 years and died of black lung disease. So we all took care of each other back then. So I’ve always believed you take care of your neighbor, your relatives and even strangers. That’s what the Bible says, too.”
Framed and hanging on a hallway wall are the names of local companies and organizations which helped make this dream a reality, including Ball Corp. for the flooring, Jimmy Floyd for electrical work, construction workers Fred Rife and James Tate and Carpenters for Christ for the alcoves and single women’s rooms.
“We’ve been so blessed by so many,” Davies said as he pointed out the downstairs restroom built to accommodate a wheelchair in its shower and the library filled with books, two computers for the guests and children’s games.
Around the corner was one of two rooms with four single bunks separated by knee-high walls and designated shelves for personal belongings. Each bunk had a tote bag full of toiletries and fresh towels. Upstairs were four spacious bedrooms for women with children, complete with cribs, changing tables and even a plush bassinet waiting for a wee one at the top of the stairs.
Davies recalled the stairs being filled with eight women who worked tirelessly for “hours and hours,” tearing up the old carpet and pulling out the nails. Two large dumpsters were filled to the brim with all the carpet that had been removed from the home over the past several months, he said.
“This place was in rough shape when we got it,” he said.
Decades of wallpaper also was removed, according to Smyth, an Episcopal clergy woman who has worked with homeless populations for the past several years.
Smyth said she and her staff were not at all surprised that all but a few beds were already spoken for by Tuesday morning.
“We knew there was a huge need for housing in this community,” said Smyth. “We had 27 calls last week and are expecting to be full by tonight. And it doesn’t matter how many children a mother has, we will not turn any of them away.”
Guests will be treated with utmost respect and care, she said, but added there are rules they need to abide by. They must be sober, they need to have specific goals they are working toward to get themselves back on their feet and they must treat other residents with the same level of respect.
They can return to the house at 5:30 in the evening during the week, 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sundays and cannot leave after the 6 p.m. curfew.
This all sounded perfectly fine to Lex as she continued to take in her new surroundings.
“My goals are to be as mentally and physically healthy as possible and to eventually get my own place and a car,” she said as local career specialist Hope Norris nodded in support, adding she would like to work in technology or something hands-on like construction. “I’ve been searching for fulfillment and a sense of purpose. I’m still working to find myself, but this feels like home to me. It’s very comfortable. It’s a start toward my future.”