By: Christa Meland
This article initially appeared in response, the United Methodist Women’s magazine. It is shared here with permission.
Until 2008, Pam Mischel lived in a nice townhouse with her children and had a good job overseeing the care and maintenance of a 50-townhome complex. But when her methamphetamine addiction spiraled out of control, she was fired from her job and evicted from her home all within a two-week period.
“We had nowhere to stay,” said 49- year-old Mischel.
For years, she couch-hopped at homes of friends and family—and sometimes even stayed in cardboard boxes inside of shelters. Eventually, she sent her kids to stay with her sister. In 2013, Mischel quit meth for good, but it wasn’t until she ended up in the hospital last year that she learned about Emma Norton Services in St. Paul, Minnesota, and moved into its dorm- style building to get her life back on track. It’s the first time in nine years that she had somewhere to call home.
“I love having somewhere I know I am sleeping every night and a closet with clothes in it,” said Mischel, who is working with a case manager and has big plans to earn her GED and become a drug counselor.
Emma Norton has made a difference in the lives of thousands of women like Mischel and their families throughout its 100-year history. That’s largely due to the support that United Methodist Women and its predecessor organizations have provided since the very beginning. Emma Norton is one of nearly 100 designated United Methodist Women national mission institutions throughout the country—and its focus has shifted several times over the past 10 decades as the needs in the Twin Cities community have changed.
Since 1991, the organization has provided housing and support services for homeless women, children, and families who have the added challenge of mental illness, chemical dependency, or both. But the organization has changed focus several times over the past 10 decades in order to meet the changing needs of the Twin Cities women it serves.
“We would not be standing here today if we didn’t have the legacy of all of these United Methodist Women supporters year after year being there for us,” said Emma Norton Executive Director Tonya Brownlow.
Changing to meet needs
When Emma Norton started in 1917, it provided safe housing for collegiate and professional women from across Minnesota who had come to the Twin Cities for school or work.
In 1921, Emma Hayes Norton donated $25,000 to the Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, part of which was designated for “a project of the Society’s choosing.” That gift, along with other contributions from the Methodist women, was invested, and in the 1960s, it had grown to almost $250,000.
At that time, Val Walker was president of the Minnesota Annual Conference’s United Methodist Women. She played a critical role in advocating for funding that enabled Emma Norton Residence to be built. In addition to asking for $1 from every United Methodist Women member in Minnesota, she flew to New York to meet with leaders of what is now The United Methodist Church’s Global Ministries to ask for additional funding for the building project. At the time, Minnesota had no mission work that was nationally known. The leaders agreed to the request.
In 1967, land was purchased, and Emma Norton Residence was built in St. Paul and opened debt-free.
Just four years later, the need for housing for women professionals and scholars had diminished, and Emma Norton evolved to meet the growing needs of young deaf students in the community by providing housing for that population. Then in 1976, as programs for the deaf and hearing-impaired grew at the state and federal levels, Emma Norton provided housing for families with loved ones undergoing long-term recovery at nearby hospitals.
“I have been just in awe of the way that the Emma Norton board and administration have recognized the great needs for women of every age in today’s world,” said Walker. “They have adapted to meet those needs and kept the United Methodist Women in Minnesota aware of the needs and given them opportunities to support them. At every point of need, Emma Norton Services has stepped up with social justice and hands-on help.”
In 1991, Emma Norton adapted its focus again to meet the needs of the increasing number of homeless women with mental illness and chemical dependency. Today, it runs two housing complexes for women and their families.
Emma Norton Residence is a dorm-style building in St. Paul that includes single- and double-occupancy sleeping rooms and a variety of common areas. Residents receive group and individual support services. The goal is to provide them with a safe place to live and to walk alongside them on their journey to achieve stability and self-sufficiency.
Roughly five miles away in the neighboring city of Maplewood, 13 single-parent families live at Emma’s Place, which provides permanent housing to those with three or more children in the form of townhomes with a variety of amenities. Parents partner with case managers to work toward personal goals, and support groups are available to all family members.
“For many years, the public generally thought homelessness only applied to men,” said Rennae Petersen, president of Emma Norton’s board of directors. “Now we know it applies to women and children too. It’s true what they say: ‘If you help a man, you save a soul; if you help a woman, you save a family.’”
Petersen has been involved with United Methodist Women since she moved to Minnesota in 1970—initially within her local church, what is now Cornerstone UMC in Marshall, and then later at the district and conference levels. She has also served on the Emma Norton board three separate times over the past 50 years.
“Emma Norton is just one example of how United Methodist Women has been at the forefront of issues that are important and opportunities that are important to women,” she said.
Strong local support
Today, United Methodist Women members throughout Minnesota remain strong supporters of Emma Norton. The bulk of its $2 million annual budget comes from the State of Minnesota and Ramsey County through client reimbursements, but United Methodist Women groups provide significant financial and hands-on support.
Every month, a local church group brings prizes and treats and hosts a bingo game and socialization time for women at Emma Norton Residence. United Methodist Women groups also provide themed centerpieces for the dining room tables each month and assist in a variety of other hands-on ways, including by adopting individual rooms to redecorate.
Cindy Saufferer, who sits on the Emma Norton board and the national United Methodist Women board of directors, is involved with the United Methodist Women at her rural Minnesota church, Blooming Grove UMC. In summer 2016, she and other members of her local unit provided a makeover to one of the resident rooms at Emma Norton Residence. The group supplied new curtains, mattresses, bedding, pillows and rugs to give the room a homey feel for the women who would be living there.
“Being on-site at Emma Norton brought a whole new awareness for our church, which I thought was wonderful,” said Saufferer. “Emma Norton provides a place where we can walk beside women through their struggles.”
In addition to local churches stepping up to support the organization, individual districts within Minnesota also provide financial support. Sandra Adelmund, United Methodist Women president for the Minnesota Annual Conference’s Twin Cities District, said her district gives about $10,000 annually. In addition, at every Twin Cities District United Methodist Women quarterly gathering, there is an Emma Norton Services tea, with freewill donations going to the organization.
“I think it’s really important to make services available to support women who are in a position of needing some help to get on their feet,” said Adelmund. “United Methodist Women helps women and children. Emma Norton Services has that same mission.
Jesus calls us to be God’s hands and feet in the world. We need to always be treating our fellow human beings as if they are appendages of Christ. Emma Norton is one of the ways that we can do that.”
Twin Cities United Methodist District Superintendent Dan Johnson, who serves on the Emma Norton board, said the organization isn’t ultimately about transitional housing but rather transformational housing.
“At every board meeting, we hear a testimony from clients who talk about how Emma Norton is making an impact in their life—helping them as they’re coming out of addiction, or an abusive relationship, or prison, and finding wholeness, health, and stability once again.”
One of the things Johnson most appreciates about Emma Norton is that its leaders don’t operate in a silo. “They have a bigger vision of ‘what would it be like to end homelessness in Minnesota?’” he said. “They are looking to define and refine their unique part of the puzzle to ending homelessness and being in cooperation with other organizations.”
Since Brownlow became the organization’s leader in 2014, she has guided some cultural shifts that have paved the way for a hopeful future. As a clinically trained social worker, she puts a lot of stock into evidence-based practices. That mindset has led to some changes, such as ending a requirement that women must be sober to enter a program and instead focusing on “harm reduction,” which aims to reduce negative consequences associated with alcoholism and drug use.
“It’s about meeting somebody where they’re at and using that as a starting point to help them through the process of making changes,” said Brownlow.
Emma Norton is focused on growth, and its board is constantly looking at how to be able to work with and house even more women and families. One step in that direction came last year, when the organization debuted its “scattered site” program. Through it, the organization is housing families in seven rental sites across the Twin Cities and bringing services directly to them; single adults will begin living at scattered sites by the end of 2017.
“The long-term piece is that we want to become much more flexible to having services not tied to housing and housing not tied to sites that we actually own,” said Brownlow.
Looking ahead, Brownlow pointed to a new contract with the Department of Human Services that will allow Emma Norton to hire two full-time equivalent certified peer specialists. These are individuals who overcame their own mental health issues and will walk alongside current clients as they begin the process of transforming their lives.
The national mission institution is also poised to become the first agency in Minnesota trained to implement the “sanctuary model”—a blueprint for clinical and organizational change that promotes recovery from adversity by focusing not only on the people who seek treatment but also on the people and systems providing the treatment.
So, what’s in store for Emma Norton’s next 100 years?
“My greatest hope would be that we would finally end our legacy of being the hidden gem in the community,” said Brownlow. “We have to be a leader in creating more affordable housing in the Twin Cities. It’s not right that we live in a country where people are homeless when there are more than enough homes to house them in. We have to step out and be a voice for those who don’t have housing and economic security.”
Emma Norton Services at a glance
250-300: Women the organization serves each year
50: Women who live at Emma Norton Residence, a four-story, dorm-style building
13: Families that live at Emma’s Place, a group of townhomes
7: Families that live at other sites across the Twin Cities
2: Years on average in which women stay at Emma Norton Residence
28: Countries from which Emma Norton clients come (along with every U S state)
10: Percent of Emma Norton’s total financial support that comes from United Methodist Women (doesn’t include in-kind donations, volunteer support and individual gifts)
In addition to providing long-term housing for women and families, Emma Norton Services also has two programs for walk-in and off-site clients who request help: adult rehabilitative mental health services and social security outreach access and recovery.
The rehab services offer off-site case managers who go directly to and work with individuals who need assistance with specific challenges they face—everything from obtaining bus passes to improving relationships to stress management. And in the social security program, individuals receive assistance applying for social services disability funding available through the government. The application process is long and difficult; consequently, many people who are eligible for resources aren’t taking advantage of them. This program helps ensure people know of and can access the resources available to them.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church