Downtown renovation creates an updated space for central Ohio women in need.

Downtownrenovation creates an updated space for central Ohio women in need.

Since beginning 130 years ago as a safe haven for young women moving to the city, YWCA Columbus has put eliminating racism and empowering women at the center of its mission. It created Franklin County's first public childcare program in 1910; fully integrated its staff, board, swimming pool and residency in 1952, and, in 2005, opened a center for homeless families.

It's still making history. The chronically homeless women it houses are set to return to newly refurbished Downtown quarters in November. Staffers who have been working in space donated by Huntington Bancshares return in January. The 97,000-square-foot building at 65 S. Fourth St., opened in 1929 thanks to philanthropist Mary Griswold, will retain the Griswold name, but the location will be known as the Center for Women.

Funding for building improvements included $6.5 million in philanthropic support; $14.3 million in public funding, including tax credits, and $1 million from the state's capital budget.

Obtaining historic tax credits required work to follow Ohio Historic Preservation Office guidelines. So, rather than demolishing its old pool, it was covered with removable metal beams and converted into a ballroom. Similarly, a former gym will feature glass-walled offices to maintain integrity of original walls and floor. "Anything of this nature has to be reversible, if it's so desired," says YWCA President and CEO Elfi Di Bella.

Originally estimated to cost $20 million, the project is expected to run closer to $24 million due to challenges of a nearly 90-year-old building.

With the renovation, the YWCA expanded residential capacity by 22, to 91 units. The facility also offers wellness and recovery support, computers and internet, phones, employment assistance, budget and financial literacy classes, a GED program and more.

Previously, residents shared bathroom and kitchen space; the upgraded digs provide individual kitchenettes and bathrooms, plus a professional kitchen where the women can gain hospitality know-how in a partnership with Columbus State Community College. The nonprofit aims to help them learn to live independently. About 88 percent of YWCA residents move into permanent housing after an average stay of 24 months.

"We are truly serving one of our most vulnerable populations in this community: 100 percent have been chronically homeless, 100 percent are struggling with mental illness, 70 percent will have a dual diagnosis for mental illness and maybe substance abuse or physical disability, 70 percent will have experienced domestic violence at some point in their life, and, unfortunately, 40 percent come to us directly from the land, which means they were living in the open, not even a shelter," says Di Bella.

"We have the opportunity to provide women with the dignity they deserve, but also the life skills that they need … so they can maintain their own independent living and be productive citizens, as well as secure their economic self-sufficiency. That is critical for our women, and it's critical to our community," she says.

New coworking space and the ballroom will generate revenue to support programming, Di Bella says. Presently, the $8.5 million operating budget comes almost equally from government support, fundraising and child care programs. "We're always looking to diversify our funding stream," Di Bella says.

The YWCA Family Center at 900 Harvey Court provides emergency shelter and services to homeless families, with a goal of securing permanent housing in three weeks. "That's significant, when you look at the national average rate of 74 days of stay," Di Bella notes. Last year, the center helped 1,117 families.

Huntington is a longtime supporter of the YWCA and its family center; its volunteers do everything from serving meals to providing financial literacy education. Huntington Chairman, President and CEO Steve Steinour says the YWCA is "an organization with whom you want to be involved because you know your support is making a big impact-and that's not always the case. In fact, the ability to connect the dots is very difficult for some not-for-profits. But Elfi does an exceedingly good job at that."

Beyond its work with homeless women and families, YWCA Columbus' services include before- and after-school care for children in Gahanna and Westerville; summer programming for children; workplace seminars, training, school instruction and public conversations about race and racism; leadership luncheons for women and multi-month leadership programs for high school juniors and for women in their 20s and the Women of Achievement awards, which recognize outstanding women-and whose awards luncheon is the nonprofit's largest annual fundraiser.

Though its accomplishments are many, the YWCA's work isn't done.

Says Di Bella, "As the community grows, so will we grow, so we'll be looking to serve more vulnerable women, whether they're chronically homeless or otherwise, increasing our social justice program. … It's exciting to be part of an organization that is flexible and nimble and really takes the pulse of what are the changing needs, what needs to be done, where can we step up to make a difference."

Jennifer Wray is associate editor.