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Rita Zimmer

Founder and executive director, HousingPlus

“Giving is a two-way street. It assists the other person, but it also makes you feel like you won the lottery. I still remember when the 7-year-old son of one of our tenants excitedly ran up to me to share his good report card.”

We develop and provide permanent housing in New York City for women and their families with a history of homelessness. Nearly all of them have encountered adverse childhoods, domestic violence, mental health issues including PTSD from military service, involvement with criminal justice, and/or substance abuse. Our additional wraparound services help the women get on their feet and improve their lives. In two decades, we’ve provided that all-important place to call home to nearly 500 women and their children.

The problem I’m trying to solve

Last year, 123,000 New Yorkers slept in a shelter at some point, plus an untold more crashed on friends’ couches or in their cars. While most people have an image of the homeless as an older man, families headed by single mothers, especially women of color, make up a large portion of this population. Not having a home impacts everything: It’s harder to find a job or stay sober, and your children move from school to school, reducing their learning. The 180 units of housing we offer across the city, everything from a studio to a four-bedroom apartment, provide that home along with a community of other families through our parties, workshops and other programs. All our tenants are under the poverty line and we charge rent of just 30 percent of their income, whatever that is. Being able to pay for their own home affords our tenants the dignity they deserve.

The moment that sparked my passion

Early in my life I had my own bout with substance abuse, receiving a much-needed wake-up call when a work colleague left a pamphlet for Alcoholics Anonymous on my desk. I checked myself into a women’s treatment program and was saved because of other people’s faith and confidence that I could do it. I decided then that helping others, especially women, overcome their own challenges would be my life’s work.

In the 1980s, I founded a shelter for women and children called Women in Need, an experience that showed me that much more than a temporary place to sleep is needed to transform lives. In 2002, I created HousingPlus. The housing and services we provide give women and their families both concrete assistance and the tools to move forward. Importantly, by listening to their stories and involving them in decision-making, it also gives them the knowledge that somebody cares.

What I wish other people knew

These women are good people. They just need a house and a chance to live up to their potential. When women have safe, secure, affordable housing, they are less likely to have a substance relapse, or to return to jail or an abusive relationship. Plus, since most often it’s women who are taking care of their children, when they are homeless, so are their kids.

Why my approach is unique

We take a “housing first” approach, because once someone has that, all other issues can be resolved. We take people as they are, not as we want them to be, which means some are not sober or employed when we house them. A small number of homeless women, in our Women’s Community Justice Project, still have active criminal justice involvement; we provide an alternative to their further incarceration.

In addition to knowing how to be good landlords, we have built pioneering programs to address the service gaps in the city. For example, we provide employment services for our tenants — everything from helping them get a job to accessing training and education — as well as clinical care, trauma services, and case management for those who need it.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

Giving is a two-way street. It assists the other person, but it also makes you feel like you won the lottery. I still remember when the 7-year-old son of one of our tenants excitedly ran up to me to share his good report card. Seeing him so proud and telling him I believed in him was a fantastic feeling for me. He and his siblings, now all adults, are thriving. Find a need in an area that is meaningful to you and start to give.