Naiyah Secession, 18, has been moving from home to home since she was 14, relying on the hospitality of friends and acquaintances.
“When you stay with people, they seem nice at first, until you get comfortable with them and then theychange up because, I think, it’s them adjusting to you being around and maybe you have some habits they don’t like, and they have habits you don’t like,” Secession said. “Sometimes you bump heads and things get rough … you have to get used to sharing all your stuff.”
She was never in control of anything.
“You get used. You get taken advantage of a lot in those situations where you constantly have to depend on other people,” she said. “Sometimes you want to say ‘no’ about certain things but you look at the situation that you’re in; you kind of just deal with it.”
Secession said she’s loaned money to people knowing fully well she wasn’t going to get paid back.
“They be like, ‘You’re living in my house, I’m letting you live in my room and use all my stuff. I don’t have to pay you back,’” she said. “It’s easy to get used.”
Today, she’s in control of her future and has been living at Lissy’s Place, part of My Home Your Home Inc., for the last five months.
Former convent houses Lissy’s Place
Located at 6200 W. Center St., Lissy’s Place, in the former convent at St. Catherine Parish, Milwaukee, can house up to 14 women and three girls, under age 18, at a time.
Connie Palmer, CEO of My Home Your Home Inc., said many of the women they house have been in dire situations.
“A lot of our girls that come in the program have slept in their cars, have slept on someone’s floor and now we all hear about the human trafficking; some of them have been in the human trafficking prostitution lifestyle as well,” Palmer said. “When you think about having your own house or apartment, this is huge for them because they have their own space.”
This housing program gives previously homeless women or those who have aged out of the foster care system a place to stay rent free. For those who have a job, they’re asked to give 10 percent of their monthly earnings to help pay for the workshops and supplies.
Palmer said one of the main goals, other than giving these women a place to live, is to provide tools for them to use when they leave.
“We want them to have a career and the goal is to get them hooked up to programs where they can get sustainable jobs,” Palmer said. “We want them to be productive citizens in society.”
“Me? I grew up kind of alone and so when I got into the world there was a lot of stuff I didn’t know,” Secession said. “They teach you a lot of stuff you don’t know.”
Secession, a senior at Assata High School, plans to go to the Art Institute of Wisconsin to study graphic design.
No men are allowed into the building without special permission.
“We’ve gotten cases where we’ve gotten pimps who have attracted women and have them come in here and recruit,” Palmer said. “Now HUD’s (Department of Housing and Urban Development) regulation is in order to come into this facility saying you’re homeless… you can’t just show up saying, ‘I’ve been living on my best friend’s couch.’”
Parish offers building rent-free
The majority of the funding to operate Lissy’s Place, which opened in 2001 and has helped more than 400 women, comes from HUD, but the building which houses it belongs to St. Catherine, which doesn’t charge My Home Your Home rent. According to their contract, renewed every 10 years with the approval of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the organization is responsible for all major changes to the building.
Donations from many area churches help maintain the facility, according to Palmer, who said they’ve recently recieved money from St. Matthew Parish, Oak Creek; St. Benedict the Moor Parish, Milwaukee; and St. Matthias Parish, Milwaukee.
“We are all serving one God,” Palmer said. “I like to see churches coming together. Even though I’m not Catholic, I look at them as individuals coming together for a common good and that’s these girls.”
Mount Mary offers decorating expertise
The Mount Mary University School of Design also lent a hand by painting and decorating all of the bedrooms when the facility opened, and has plans to redo its work soon.
The rooms, which resemble designer showcases with bold colors and coordinating accessories, feature paintings and photos of downtown Milwaukee.
Above the bedrooms is a recreational room filled with exercise equipment, a foosball table and a television.
A grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Association helped pay to redo the windows.
The building not only houses the women, but it provides a computer lab with Internet access, decorated by parishioners from St. Mary Parish, Hales Corners.
There’s also a boutique filled with donated clothes and accessories at which the women can “shop.”
“You get to pick an outfit when you first come in,” Palmer said. “If you have a job interview, you get to pick an outfit. If we have some of the special days, like we do for Christmas and Thanksgiving, where we feed them, then they get to come up here and pick an outfit.”
The women can shop with “You Go Girl” points, earned by doing something for the community or performing an extra chore around the house.
Life skills taught
Mamie Roberson, Lissy’s Place volunteer-turned-job coach, said they strive to promote healthy relationships along with usable information, ranging from cooking to human trafficking.
They teach “any topics that will encourage them, keep them safe; teach them information that they need to be successful in life,” Roberson said.
Robertson recalled a time when she was trying to motivate one of the women to search for a job about which she was passionate.
“Everybody has dreams and aspirations,” Roberson said.
While trying to figure out what this woman dreamed to become, Roberson learned she enjoyed having things organized, even if it wasn’t her property.
Roberson told the woman it’s possible to be a professional organizer.
“Her face lit up like a Christmas tree,” Roberson said. “She said, ‘That’s really a job? I can get paid to organize things?’”
Robertson cherishes those moments.
“That was the thing when I was a volunteer; what kept me here is I had made a connection with them,” Roberson said, adding sometimes she feels like the “house mother.”
Realty company commits ‘act of service’
Multiple organizations have committed time and supplies to help further the cause of Lissy’s Place. KellerWilliams Realty, an international real estate company, dedicates May 8 of every year, called “Red Day,” for each branch to choose a local charity to commit an act of service.
Toni Spott, real estate specialist for Keller Williams, Milwaukee, felt My Home Your Home was a perfect fit for the group.
“Everybody was geared up for this; they were psyched,” Spott said. “It’s a give back to community day … this is our community service project.”
Maureen Stalle, owner of Keller Williams, Milwaukee, joined Spott and several other employees at Lissy’s Place on May 8. They brought dinner, a build-your-own-taco-bar, and a gift bag filled with shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant and personalized coffee mugs for each of the girls staying at the facility.
Stalle said this kind of work is great for the community but also great for the employees of Keller Williams.
“(We’re) learning to give back to the community, give back our blessings, share our gifts,” Stalle said. “(We’re) working alongside those who might not have worked alongside community service before to expose (employees) to it.”
The staff and women at Lissy’s Place appreciate the effort by other organizations to help with the culinary arts.
“We always get different groups that come in and cook, either with the girls or for the girls,” Palmer said.
Company plans a return visit
While preparing the meal, Spott made sure they would be able to come back again.
She approached Palmer with the idea.
“We’re having a great time. This is very fun,” Spott said. “We’d like to stay on a list because we’d like to participate on an ongoing basis.”
Huge smiles came across Palmer’s and Robertson’s faces.
“Wonderful,” Palmer said.
A few girls enjoyed the dinner, and Palmer noted the leftovers and remaining ingredients would be enough food for the next several days.
“Thank you, we appreciate that,” Palmer said.
Spott smiled back.
“No problem, our pleasure,” Spott said, and returned to the kitchen to continue preparing dinner.
The work done by the staff and volunteers isn’t lost on the women who benefit from it.
Candice Jones, 21, a Value Village employee for nine months, has been living at Lissy’s Place for three months.
“I feel like it’s a great opportunity for anybody,” Jones said of living at Lissy’s Place, her second stay at the home.
“I was real naïve the first time,” she said. “I left because I had a job. I really didn’t take it seriously … I wanted to move.”
She got her own apartment but eventually moved in with her sister, only then realizing the real benefits of Lissy’s Place.
“She had too many people living in her house,” Jones said of her sister, adding the group was becoming a problem. “She didn’t put me out; I wanted to leave. I was like, I’d rather go to a shelter than deal with this … I’m not even going to lie; I can’t trust people.”
Staff offers support, care
Jones found the staff to be welcoming and supportive.
She remembered a time when someone from Lissy’s Place was there for her at one of her lowest moments.
“I was having a moment and I trapped myself in my room,” Jones said. “I was crying. I broke some things; I think I did, I don’t know. I was going through something and they really helped me a lot.”
Secession, listening to Jones tell her story, asked if it was a nervous breakdown?
“I really broke down,” Jones replied. “I had a really bad nervous breakdown.”
Secession knew exactly what Jones had experienced.
“I done had plenty of them,” Secession said.
For her, the staff was there for her during a potentially life threatening moment.
Secession described herself as a “borderline diabetic,” and said there was a time when she lost consciousness in her room.
“All my levels were low and I was really dehydrated, and I just ended up passing out one evening,” Secession said. “They rushed me to the hospital. They made sure I got there. They packed my clothes. They had everything ready for me. And they were waiting as soon as I got back.”
Secession and Jones believe Lissy’s Place is more than just a place to stay.
“I just like the inspiration. Some people went through a lot just to get to where they at,” Jones said. “They teach you how to love yourself and take care of yourself.”