When a woman in a violent relationship is facing the decision of if, when or how to leave her abuser, the logistics and cost of living independently can be a daunting, even overwhelming consideration.

If no support exists to help a woman afford and maintain her own living space, she is more likely to return to that abusive relationship — or never leave it in the first place.

This was the grim reality discovered by Sr. Evelyn Lins of the Racine Dominicans in the late 1980s when she completed a feasibility study on the needs of local women. She surveyed 19 agencies throughout the Racine area and consulted the mayor and city executive with the question: “What are the greatest needs of women in Racine?”

She got the same answer from everyone.

“They all recognized the need for something beyond the shelter for women that had been abused,” recalled Sr. Lins. “That’s really what started our community thinking, ‘OK, let’s pick up on this now and see what we can do.’”
What they did was establish what remains as Racine’s only transitional housing for women and children fleeing an abusive relationship. Opened in 1990, Bethany Apartments is a safe haven where abuse victims can find housing, social services and emotional support for up to 24 months while they start to rebuild their lives.

“The women in these circumstances need something to bridge that gap between the time they’re in shelter and the time they can become self-sufficient,” said Pamala Handrow, executive director of Bethany Apartments.
Bethany works closely with the Women’s Resource Center, a local emergency shelter that can house women for up to 45 days. “That may seem like a sizable amount of time, but often the women who come there have been in dire straits and don’t have any resources of their own,” said Handrow.

The Dominicans partnered with the Wheaton Franciscans, who had experience in supportive housing, to establish Catherine Marian Housing, Inc. The apartments received their first family in November 1990 — “an exciting day,” said Sr. Lins, who was Bethany’s first executive director.

A flurry of generosity and good fortune helped to get the fledgling organization on its way: the archdiocese forgave the $120,000 loan on the former Cristo Rey school building that housed the apartments, in addition to several other large loans from the Franciscans and the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority. Wisconsin Electric, said Sr. Lins, paid for all the refrigerators in the units, and Wisconsin Natural Gas paid for all the furnaces.

Bethany derives its name from the Biblical place to which Jesus would often retreat for respite. In 27 years, it has provided housing to more than 680 women and children. There are 12 fully furnished apartment units of varying sizes, and rent is calculated based on current market rate as well as a woman’s family size, financial situation and income.

“Even if their income says they can meet a threshold, but there are other circumstances, we can be flexible,” said Handrow.

Security is tight at the apartments, since the women are often still in danger of being victimized by their abusers. Male visitors are only allowed with permission, cameras monitor the hallways, and the staff works in close collaboration with the local police department to keep track of who is on the property.

But Bethany Apartments isn’t just a safe place to sleep — it isn’t even just a home. It’s a program that accompanies women on their journey to self-sufficiency. There is on-site case management that asks residents to identify customized goals — whether that’s job security, education or emotional recovery from the trauma of abuse. Bethany works closely with other local organizations that can offer women resources like vocational training, counseling or funding for school.

Overcoming that negative self-image is the greatest gift Bethany can give a resident, said Sr. Lins. Her favorite success story involves a resident who had been “abused terribly — called stupid, and all kinds of things.” Bethany helped her to attend UW-Parkside and study art. During one class, the woman painted a portrait of Jesus, but His eyes were shut.

“The professor asked her, ‘Why do you have His eyes shut?’ She said, ‘I cannot bear to have Him look at me,’” said Sr. Lins. “Many abused women blame themselves.”

After much therapy and personal growth, the woman was able to repaint Jesus’ eyes as open. “She said to me, ‘That was the turning point in my life — when I could allow my God to look at me,’” recalled Sr. Lins. “When women can look at themselves and say, ‘I am a beautiful person, I have dignity, I can truly be whatever I would ever want to be’ — that is the most fulfilling part of what we do.”

Bethany Apartments is hosting a fundraiser featuring the artwork of resident children. “Art from the Heart: Hope for the Future,” an art show and raffle, will take place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21, at Infusino’s Banquet Hall, 3201 Rapids Drive, Racine. The cost is $20 for adults and $8 for children ages 4 to 10. For more information, visit bethanyapartments.org.