In wealthy Chester County, a respite for struggling older women - Generocity Philly

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Oct. 24, 2017 11:04 am

In wealthy Chester County, a respite for struggling older women

Social services nonprofit Home of the Sparrow's pre-senior housing program connects low-income women with a place to stay and resources to get them back on their feet.

Home of the Sparrow's second pre-senior house, in Coatesville.

(Courtesy photo)

Five years ago, Marybeth Chodkiewicz was living in New Jersey with her family and working in long-term IT job. But in a short period of time, both her husband and 26-year-old daughter died and she lost her job, leaving her with no place to go.

At 57 years old, Chodkiewicz struggled finding a new job in the IT field and couldn’t keep up with her mortgage payments. Her house went into foreclosure and she felt she’d run out of options.

“For everything that I thought I had accomplished in my life, the rug was just pulled out from under me and I had nowhere to turn,” she said. “I was always able to take care of myself.”

Chodkiewicz, now 62, called Home of the Sparrow, a nonprofit located in Chester County that works to help women in unstable circumstances by providing services such as a pre-senior housing program, connecting them to resources and financial literacy counseling. She was able to get an apartment with the organizations and has been living there since June.

Home of the Sparrow has two pre-senior facilities, one in West Chester and another in Coatesville. The West Chester location has the space for five women, all of whom are eligible to live there for up to a year and a half. The second location was built last year and also has availability for a total of five women, with three single apartments and one shared.

Development and communications associate Sophie Tentrop said many women age 55 to 62 have trouble accessing services because they are not yet eligible for government services for the elderly and it is also difficult to find a new job in that age bracket.

"Home of the Sparrow is a place for older women who have gone through some sort of crisis to catch their breath and be in a safe and peaceful environment."
Sophie Tentrop

“[Home of the Sparrow] is a place for older women who have gone through some sort of crisis to catch their breath and be in a safe and peaceful environment,” Tentrop said.

Chester County is the healthiest and wealthiest country in Pennsylvania, but has a dearth of affordable housing. Rent in West Chester especially tends to be on the pricier side, with a two-bedroom apartment costing an average of $1,496 per month, according to one rental site.

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Tentrop said most Home of the Sparrow residents do have jobs, but they tend to be minimum wage or lower income jobs — and “it’s impossible to even afford a studio apartment on minimum wage.”

Residents and staff work on budgeting by sitting down together, going through their goals and working toward creating savings.

“A lot of the time when [participants] come into the program, they’ve depleted their entire savings,” Tentrop said. “They kind of live on the edge of making it month to month, but then something unexpected happens and it all starts spiraling down.”

Home of the Sparrow provides technology literacy training to gain necessary skills in the current labor market and can connect women to resources like food cupboards and affordable housing. The organization also runs an apartment matching service that matches homeowners with homeseekers.

Tentrop said many women struggle with feelings of shame in asking for help, especially if they have been independent for the majority of their lives.

Chodkiewicz said it was very difficult giving up her house of 15 years, but she is now budgeting her money better and building up her savings account. She is located close to her job and gets along well with her roommate. The next step is looking for senior housing because she’s looking forward to having a place to call home.

“I went through a bit of a depression, giving up and feeling like a failure, but I’m starting to feel that I’m getting back whole again, that there is a future for me,” she said. “I realized how lucky I am that there are other women out there who have it worse for me.

“I’m hoping there are more good days.”

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