“Families need more than just a roof over their head and St. Patrick’s Shelter gives them food, clothing and someone who cares about them, their children, their hopes and dreams.” – Wiinie McKenzie, Safe Haven Family Shelter Founder (in a booklet outlining the 1990 capital campaign to build a new shelter)

More than 36 years ago, two Nashville non-profits emerged to serve our community’s homeless families. Separately, the shelters existed as Safe Haven Shelter and the Nashville Family Shelter. Both
driven by the belief that parents and children must be kept together in order to ensure security, success and self-sufficiency, the non-profits merged in 2003 to create Safe Haven Family Shelter.

Safe Haven Honors Founder Winnie McKenzie

by Andy Telli, Tennessee Register

(Reprinted with permission from the Tennessee Register www.dioceseofnashville.com)

When Winnie McKenzie started Nashville’s first shelter for homeless families at St. Patrick Church in South Nashville, she worked to build a place that gave families in need more than a place to sleep.

In a booklet outlining the 1990 capital campaign to build a new shelter, she wrote “Families need more than just a roof over their head and St. Patrick’s Shelter gives them food, clothing and someone who cares about them, their children, their hopes and dreams.”

Since then, the shelter has moved out of St. Patrick’s and into a new building on an adjacent lot, has reorganized as Safe Haven Family Shelter, has undergone a major expansion in 2013, and has added a long list of programs and services to help families find permanent housing and stabilize their lives.

“Winnie talked about treating others with dignity and love. Families that everyone else was rejecting and didn’t have a place, they could have their dignity restored” at St. Patrick’s and later Safe Haven, said Joyce Lavery, the current executive director of Safe Haven. McKenzie’s vision still guides Safe Haven, she said.

As the shelter celebrates its 30th anniversary, McKenzie, who died in 2003, is being recognized with the organization’s 2014 Hero Award, which honors “individuals who have made an impact on the success of our families and our organization,” said Rachael Wilkins, director of development at Safe Haven. McKenzie was honored at the fifth annual Dancing for Safe Haven fundraising event April 12. “It’s very fitting, as we’re celebrating the incredible milestone of 30 years, that she be honored,” Wilkins said.

McKenzie grew up in Christ the King Parish in Nashville, and she and her husband, Earl, a member of the first class of permanent deacons ordained in the Diocese of Nashville, raised six sons at Christ the King.

She worked many years as a private duty nurse and in retail and was active in many Catholic affairs. After she retired from those jobs, McKenzie took on the job as the founding executive director of St. Patrick’s Family Shelter, in 1984, a joint venture of St. Patrick’s and the South Nashville Cooperative Ministry.

“None of us children were surprised when she announced that her ministry, now that we were all raised, was going to be helping homeless families return to lives of productivity,” her son Deacon Jim McKenzie of the Cathedral of the Incarnation wrote in a letter for the Dancing for Safe Haven program. “Growing up in her household, I do not remember a period of time when someone who needed a home was not living with us. She always made it clear that we were to treat any of these guests as a member of our family, because she believed that the first step to helping someone help themselves was to surround them with love and dignity.”

At its start, the shelter housed homeless families and single women from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. on the second floor of the old St. Patrick School. Soon, it focused its efforts solely on families, housing five a night, seven days a week, year round. Families could stay at the shelter for up to three months while they received help finding a job and a home.

From its earliest days until today, volunteers from area churches, businesses and organizations would take turns preparing and serving an evening meal for the families.

The shelter also provided its families with shower and bathroom facilities, laundry facilities, personal hygiene and baby supplies, clean new and used clothes, help locating housing and household furnishings and with rent and utility deposits, job placement, referrals to physical, mental and spiritual care and counseling, education and training for adults and children, and fellowship.

The needs of the programs soon outgrew the space at St. Patrick’s and McKenzie started working toward construction of a new facility on Third Avenue South behind St. Patrick’s. “A new place is needed so parents and children can be together in a temporary home that’s bright and airy … and that they don’t have to leave at 6:30 a.m., more often than not to wander the streets until they can return at 6 p.m.,” McKenzie wrote in the capital campaign booklet.

In 1991, the shelter moved into its new location, which had rooms for five families, a kitchen, common room, and office space. While the space increased, so did the agency’s ability to provide programming to help the families.

“That was something really new,” Lavery said. “Her vision is still being borne out by the literature” and research, she added.

“She really wanted Safe Haven not to be so big … you couldn’t provide the depth of services,” Lavery said. Many families face barriers to success, including a lack of education, joblessness, medical issues, a troubled family situation. “If you just stick them in housing without services they might fail,” Lavery said. “It’s part of the DNA of Safe Haven” to provide a variety of services to help families overcome the barriers they face.

McKenzie retired from St. Patrick’s in 1996, and in 2003 St. Patrick’s merged with Nashville Family Shelter, which had a similar mission, and reorganized itself as Safe Haven.

In 2013, Safe Haven opened its expanded and renovated facility which doubled its capacity from five families to 10, and provided additional office and meeting space. Safe Haven has followed the model set by McKenzie with an emphasis on programming to help the families.

Safe Haven staffers provide case management for the families, helping them to identify their needs and developing a plan for attaining self-sufficiency. The agency also has a housing specialist to help families find permanent housing and an educational specialist to help the children so they don’t fall behind in school. Safe Haven works with Lifeworks of Nashville to help residents with the job search, job training, job interview skills and other services.

Some of the programs and services are available to the families even after they move out of Safe Haven and into permanent housing. Safe Haven serves 30-35 families at any one time, including with housing and in other programs, and between 75 and 100 families in a year, Lavery said.

During the 2014 Dancing for Safe Haven event,  guests viewed a video tribute to McKenzie featuring her son Jim, Father Pat Kibby, a family friend and pastor of St. Stephen Catholic Community, and Henry Bedford, a board member who worked closely with Winnie McKenzie.