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Shelter from the Storm

Now helmed by former city attorney Casey Gwinn, the San Diego YWCA celebrates a century of providing a safe haven for local women in need


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SHE IS THE FACE of today’s YWCA: slight and pretty with dark, earnest eyes and delicate hands. She fights back tears as she recalls the years of domestic abuse. With worries of survival, safety and shelter behind her—for the next year—she talks with hope about rebuilding her family, self-confidence and her trust in people. She could be any one of the thousands of women who knock on the doors of YWCA centers of San Diego every year, searching to escape the vicious cycle of domestic violence and homelessness.

This year, the YWCA of San Diego County celebrates 100 years of continuous community service. It has quietly housed, fed, educated and supported thousands of men and women in a historic building on the downtown corner of Tenth Avenue and C Street (its permanent home since 1927). Nicknamed Casa Amiga, the building reflects the renaissance of its gentrifying neighborhood, as well as the organization itself, with a plan for vast renovation and a new vision for the future.

The national Young Women’s Christian Association was founded in the mid-1800s to “alleviate the dismal living conditions of working women.” San Diego’s YWCA followed suit, but soon initiated many programs of its own that became nationally adopted: Traveler’s Aid, Business Women’s Clubs, Leadership Development Clubs, an employment bureau and residence programs for distressed and traveling women.

It was here at the San Diego YWCA where Susan B. Anthony, namesake of her more famous suffragette great-aunt, found solace and a new beginning. Distraught by alcoholism, failed marriages and a number of other disappointments, including resentment for the famed name, Anthony found herself at Casa Amiga. She later wrote, “My soul was born here in San Diego, in Room 404 of the YW, with its grand view of the Coronado Ferry.”

Still true to its mission of bettering the lives, status and opportunities of women and children, the YWCA’s current programs are a response to modern social issues. They are designed specifically to help women escape the despair of homelessness and domestic abuse. Services not only fulfill the needs of women and their children in emergency and life-threatening situations but include counseling and legal services, parenting classes, life skills, life coaching and mentoring programs—all the skills needed to begin living a successful independent life.

Today, the YWCA operates four emergency and transitional living facilities throughout San Diego County: Becky’s House 1 is a 30-day confidential emergency housing facility; Becky’s House 2, a cheery-looking complex of 14 town houses that opened last October, is an 18-month program encouraging independent living within a nurturing environment. Homeless families are welcome for 90-day stays at the Cortez Hill Family Center; and the Passages program, a two-year, three-stage program, has an 85 percent success rate in teaching homeless women the skills they need to find work and permanent housing.

Former San Diego city attorney Casey Gwinn brings his extensive experience as an advocate for victims of domestic abuse to his new role as CEO of the YWCA. Gwinn is one of the founders of the Family Justice Center, a city office that integrates legal, social and health services under one roof. A great success locally, it’s become the model for similar centers internationally and has been replicated in 30 U.S. communities and 10 countries.

“My vision for the future of the YWCA is that it becomes the collaborative leader that rallies all the support agencies to work together in a way that will be a whole new model for the country,” explains Gwinn. “I’m very excited about restoring this building to its original beauty and making it the heart of a neighborhood of agencies, schools, housing and socially responsible businesses with a cooperative mission.”

He believes the YWCA is once again breaking new ground by taking a comprehensive approach not only to alleviate homelessness and domestic violence but prevent it. “Women used to have to go to an average of 25 agencies to deal with their legal, health and social issues. We want to give them all the services they need under one roof.”

The YWCA kicked off its centennial-year celebration in February, continuing throughout the year with a series of events planned through October, including a gala celebration in May. For more information, visit ywcasandiego.org.

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