From Homelessness to Job-Seeking Heroine: How the nonprofit system saved Sina.

Confused. Lost. Chaotic: Three words that Sina Davis, 48, used to describe her life before moving from Chicago to Madison in 2008. Though she’s reluctant to discuss the gritty details of her previous life, Davis, a single mother, had admittedly bottomed-out. “I felt myself drowning in Chicago,” she said, “and I couldn’t swim. I had to change my lifestyle.” Efforts to overcome the obstacles and barriers she faced just weren’t working, she explained. She tried living with the mother of her grandchildren, “but that didn’t work out,” she said. To complicate matters, after years without health or dental care, her teeth were beginning to fall out.

Determined to break out of her downward spiral, one day Davis dropped her daughter off with a sister and moved to Madison, where she’d heard about a single women’s shelter at the Salvation Army. With little more than the clothes on her back, she showed up at the agency’s door. “I went there with a lot of shame,” she said, hanging her head. She remembers crying out for help: “I need a place to stay now! I need to start my life over!”

When her desperation was met with a smile, Davis said she knew instantly that her life was about to change. “I was determined never to go back to where I came from,” she said.

Defying Homelessness

For the first couple of months, Davis stayed at the women’s shelter, slept on the gymnasium floor and worked with a Salvation Army case manager who kept her on track with goal-setting. The shelter provided a nightly dinner and breakfast in the morning, but all occupants were required to leave each morning by 8:00 a.m. so the Salvation Army could reclaim the space for other daytime purposes. Occasionally, Davis would have a meal at Luke House. “I didn’t know what homelessness was until I came to Madison, she said, “but I refused [to be homeless].”

In fact, she kept interviewing for jobs, and found one, working part-time for Clean Power, where she quickly worked her way up to Floor Care Specialist. “I had the entire One West Wilson building,” she said proudly. But she also knew that if she wanted her daughter back, her night shift would need to change.

Davis’ determination was not lost on case workers, who suggested she apply for housing at Holly House, a transitional home for women. She was accepted. There, she had her own bedroom with a dresser, desk and bed, and shared a kitchen, living room, phone and laundry facility with seven other women. “That was great,” she said. “I had my own key. It was a step up from accommodations at the Salvation Army.” Women at Holly House are not allowed to have children living with them, and they can stay up to two years. But Davis would have none of that.

She was out in eight months.

“So many women are more educated than me, but they don’t have the motivation,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “It’s a process. You have to be determined.”

And you have to have a support system.

When she met “Miss Leslie,” Leslie Westerfelt, 27, a job options and displaced homemaker coordinator at the YWCA, a bond formed. “Sina is always surprising me,” said Westerfelt. “A lot of people in her situation, when they’re new to an area, get frustrated and give up. Sina has had pitfalls and setbacks, but her attitude is always positive and motivated. It’s nice to work with someone who has the right attitude behind them. She’s never complained.”

Dressing for Success

Davis certainly knew what she wanted: her 11-year old daughter, Angel. She also knew that bringing Angel to Madison would mean getting a job during the day, so she made the decision to leave the industrial world to move into a more “corporate” environment. But such a transition would require a wardrobe, something Davis could only dream of at the time. To help with the transition, Westerfelt suggested Davis check out another “Y” program: Suited for Success.

In its eighth year, “Suited for Success” was started by Wisconsin Women in Government (WWIG) to provide professional-styled clothing, shoes and accessories — at no charge — to low income women who need interview/work-appropriate attire. Items can be donated to the Suited for Success Boutique at the YWCA’s Latham St. location at any time, but once a year, WWIG and Klinke Cleaners co-sponsor a Suited for Success clothing drive. This year’s drive, just completed in April, brought in 925 “gently used” professional clothing items. Klinke Cleaners dry cleans the donated items at no cost, and the YWCA displays them in its store-like boutique. Women utilizing the boutique must be referred by a third party, and every Thursday, the boutique opens for “shoppers,” like Davis, who are allowed to leave with two complete business outfits. They can return after six months to adjust their wardrobe for the change of season.

Davis has used the Suited for Success program twice thus far. Her face lights up as she recalls the experiences. “When you leave out of there, you’re dressed from head to toe to interview — lotions, perfumes, shoes, hose, earrings, a purse. I was confident and ready to interview!” she smiled. “It was just great. You don’t have to be homeless when you’ve got this single women’s shelter, and [other programs] like Suited for Success.”

On track to begin interviewing for a position in the corporate world, Westerfelt suggested Davis apply for another “Y” program: Smiles for Success, a free cosmetic dental program affiliated with the Max Pohle Dental Clinic at Meriter Hospital. Smiles for Success was established to help low-income women with significant dental issues improve their self-esteem before re-entering the workforce. Davis was one of the few lucky women accepted. Davis sports a temporary set of dentures these days, but by next month, her smile will be permanently transformed. That’s perfect timing because these days, Davis smiles a lot. “I’ve learned that your appearance just means so much! I’m so grateful for both programs,” she said.

Getting Back on Track

Currently, Davis works 20 hours a week as the Front Desk Coordinator at Joining Forces for Families on Madison’s southwest side, earning $10 an hour. Now that she qualifies for Section 8 housing assistance, she lives in a two-bedroom apartment in the Allied Drive neighborhood. She is in the last phase of the Salvation Army’s support system: the year-long “Stabilized Living” phase, which monitors Davis’ transition back into society and provides some household cleaning supplies. But as for receiving financial support, those days are over. Davis is on her own now, and responsible for her own rent and expenses.

Angel, in the meantime, moved up from Chicago last year. While she attends Crestwood Elementary School, her mother spends several hours a week in Microsoft training including Excel and Access through a certificate program offered by Madison College. “I want to be well-read when I go back [to work],” Davis said. “I want to be prepared.”

Davis’ support system with the Salvation Army will end on July 17, at which point she will be entirely on her own. But the challenges that might lie ahead seem trivial to those she’s already overcome.

Now, she’s living in a neighborhood she loves, and she’s involved with area neighborhood groups including the Allied Drive Task Force. “Moving here, to Allied Drive, has been great,” Davis said. “If you’re focused, you get involved and you help people, it’s a success. I believe the residents here are fighting for their community. They believe in it. From the time I moved in, I’ve seen great improvement.” That’s in sharp contrast to the Chicago neighborhood she came from. “It was a very violent area,” she recalled. “But coming here was a change of pace — it is slower, cleaner, and I feel a little peace.

“I am going to make it here, set my roots and a good foundation for my daughter. I see my daughter going to college now,” she said. “I see it!”

Davis continues to interview for jobs, hoping for that one break into the corporate world, and her clothes are cleaned and ready to go. There have been the usual disappointments. “They’ll say, ‘oh, you’re great … but you don’t have a car.’ Or, ‘Thank you, I’ll keep you on file [knowing full well they won’t].'” Undeterred, she plods ahead, using Madison Metro or the Women’s Transit Authority to get around.

“I like working with people. I like typing, office work, setting up e-mail addresses, assisting and directing people, and welcoming them with a smile,” she smiles.

“I feel great today. I feel I’m well on my way. I see what others can’t see, and I see me making it.”

Her determination is fueled by appreciation. “I want to give back, not only to the Salvation Army, but to Madison and me, myself,” she said. “I want to help women that have the same issues I had. I don’t look at the Salvation Army as a last resort. To me, it was my start, my beginning. When all else fails and there’s a place where you can go and start over … It was great for me.”

With her transition nearly complete, Davis doesn’t hesitate when asked for three words to describe her new life: “Secure, determined, and happy!” she beams, through her new smile.

For information about either the Suited for Success or Smiles for Success programs, contact the YWCA Empowerment Center at (608) 255-3098 or online at

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