California is the seventh largest economy in the world, yet it accounts for 20 percent of the nation’s homeless population—nearly 115,000 people. Women and children are the fastest growing homeless population today. Kim Carter, executive director of Time for Change Foundation, overcame homelessness, prison and addiction to start a visionary organization that supports women as they rebuild and reclaim their lives.
This is a story about one of the most basic human needs—having a roof over our heads.
“Imagine you have three children and you decide to finally stop being the punching bag for your abusive partner,” Kim Carter begins.
“Ashamed and scared, you ask a friend if you can stay the night. She agrees but says she’s scared of your partner, too. So you have to leave first thing in the morning. You call a shelter, which says to get in line by 4 PM. You get a cot for the night and watch your children sleep while keeping one eye open because you are in a big room filled with strangers. A strong dose of self-pity and self-loathing takes over. You worry about your future and how you are going to take care of your kids. The shelter makes you leave by 8 AM and return at 4 PM to get back in line. How can you survive like this, get back on your feet and take care of your children again?”
Carter hears stories like this all the time: of homeless, often formerly incarcerated women who have fallen through the cracks of our society. They have nowhere to go and have lost hope.
A lucky few hear about Time for Change Foundation, the nonprofit she founded 14 years ago based on the belief that homeless women deserve respect, dignity and an opportunity to rebuild their lives in nurturing and supportive homes.
“Having a stable home lifts a huge burden,” Carter said. “With a roof over their heads, the women can begin to dream and take steps towards self-sufficiency—they can begin to change.” To date, her organization has helped 850 women in San Bernardino County start afresh.
Carter’s idea for Time for Change developed from her own experience. She spent more than a decade addicted to cocaine and alcohol, and cycled in and out of prison. Then a judge offered her a chance to attend a six-month, post-release rehabilitation program. She was 30 and desperate to turn her life around.
In rehab, she attended 12-step meetings and received therapy for childhood traumas. Later, she went to school, got a job and saved money. By any measure, her life was on track. Then the fury started to rise.
“I started to have this anger,” Carter said, and a passion that wouldn’t go away.
She began to question the system that had put her away. The War on Drugs, the great disparities in public school funding, mass incarceration—it was as if a veil was lifted. She saw clearly for the first time that she had been victim to a long history of racism, violence, ignorance and policies that punished rather than rehabilitated and healed.
Instead of consuming her, the anger became her fuel. She quit her accounting job and invested all of her savings into starting Time for Change. Armed with only her vision, experience and passion, she approached the Women’s Foundation of California in 2005 and won her very first grant from our Race, Gender and Human Rights giving circle. She attended our Women’s Policy Institute that same year, which helped channel her energy into positive change in her community.
“That’s where I got my voice and learned how not to sit and watch the world go by,” Carter said.
Not Every Roof Overhead Is a Home
Studies have shown—and Carter knows from personal experience—that short-term places of refuge are least effective in breaking the cycle of homelessness.
Her approach is radically different from these traditional shelters, which, Carter said, “recycle the homeless” by only offering short-term stays. She learned women did better in settings that dealt with unaddressed mental health issues, trauma and abuse that many experience.
As a result, a woman who lands a spot at a Time for Change is promised a place to live for as long as she needs to become self-sufficient, which creates a deep sense of security.
There are on-site therapists, drug counselors and classes in nutrition, financial management, vocational training and self-esteem. If a woman lands a job interview, Time for Change will coach her and provide transportation support. There are parenting classes for mothers. And legal aid is offered to women who are separated and want to reunite with their children. To date, Time for Change has helped over 100 women reunite with their children.
Instead of dormitories, Carter creates homes because she knows stability and belonging are key ingredients to permanently conquering homelessness. All of Time of Change residences are located in reputable, safe neighborhoods with excellent schools; places where kids can play on the streets and where nearby grocery stores sell healthy foods.
“We’re helping women defy the odds. Our one and only goal is to help women become self-sufficient. Period! A stable home is the very first step, without which nothing else is possible,” Carter said.
A Bigger and Bolder Vision
The 53-year old Carter is a rapid-fire talker with a bold vision. In scaling up her idea, she’s become a nonprofit low-income housing developer to increase the total number affordable, decent housing options for women. She also plans to expand Time for Change’s program models to surrounding counties and is training women and men in policy advocacy so that they can advocate for policies—at local, state and national levels—that benefit and uplift homeless and formerly incarcerated women.
The results of her work are tangible with many victories, big and small. A woman came to her the other day in proud disbelief: She just learned all three of her children had perfect attendance at their school.
She told Carter, “It’s not just their award, it’s mine, too.” Carter responded, “Exactly.”