“It’s an oasis. As soon as I came through the front door, I was home.”

Lavena Lewis, entrepreneur and MADE BY DWC graduate

We recently visited FOUND/LA grantee and partner, Downtown Women’s Center (DWC). Like many organizations, they were forced to limit their services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that the world is re-opening, we wanted to reacquaint you with their history, their mission, and how their social enterprise provides unhoused women with employment, income, and the education to ultimately support themselves as an entrepreneur. 

Founded in 1978, DWC has been providing supportive housing, health services, and employment to the unhoused women of Los Angeles for over 40 years. It’s story began with founder Jill Halverson: while working with Americorps, she befriended a woman, Rosa, who was living on the street. It was through this connection that Halverson realized there were no services specifically for unhoused women in Los Angeles – and thus the DWC was born. To this day, their Drop-in Day Center and Health Clinic is still the only organization exclusively servicing unhoused women in the area.

Most of the DWC’s residents are in their fifties, so in addition to providing food and housing, they also have an individual case manager to oversee their residency. DWC is committed to the philosophy of “aging in place,” which means providing residents with additional resources like nurses and Occupational Therapists, so they can retain their independence instead of moving into a higher care facility like a nursing home. At DWC, there is no time limit to a resident’s stay; the average length is seven years, and some participants have been there for over fifteen. 

Operating off of a need-based list of potential candidates, made possible by being deeply embedded in the community, DWC also offers rapid-rehousing services to women who have recently been made homeless. Aside from their residential services, they offer health clinics, daily meals, and opportunities for education and employment. From their coding classes, to their “Girls Just Wanna Have Funds” class, DWC gives women the tools they need to break the cycle of homelessness- including the FOUND/LA-supported MADE BY DWC social enterprise program.

In the spring of 2011, DWC started the MADE BY DWC cafe, staffed entirely by their social enterprise program recipients. They offer both employment in the cafe, as well as a product line of their own candles sold on-site. It was through this social enterprise program that Lavena Lewis, founder of Vena Vena handbags, was able to learn the basics of operating a business: quality control, production, marketing, finances, are all taught to cohorts to empower them on the path to entrepreneurship.

The MADE BY DWC program is more than just an educational path to owning your own business: it also provides women who have been devalued and abandoned by society a sense of purpose, belonging, and community. As Joe Altapeter, Chief Social Enterprise Officer, explained, “That’s why we kept this program going during COVID. Even though we shut the store, we know how important that support was to the community.”

A walking example of the possibilities entrepreneurship can provide, Lavena Lewis entered the MADE by DWC program while she was still living on skid row. She speaks to not just the practical, but the emotional support that the program provided: “As soon as I came through the front door I was home. It was really an escape for me and made me look higher and keep my possibilities bigger.” Thanks to the support and education the program provided, she was able to launch her own business, Vena Vena Handbags, and is now thriving, housed, and able to support herself. She regularly visits the program, speaking to new cohorts and giving back to the community that made her journey possible. Being a part of the program changed what she believed was possible, and she wants to pass that on to others. Says Lewis, “It’s important to reach your hand back to others, but it’s also important to keep an eye on the future.” 

During the height of COVID, their participants became more reliant than ever on DWC for meals, basic hygiene needs, safety, and community. Thanks to the support of their volunteers and community, they were able to meet that need by doubling their daily meal service, distributing thousands of hygiene kits and face coverings, and moving women into permanent housing across Los Angeles.

As restrictions have eased, DWC has been able to re-open many of their programs, including meals three times a day, health and hygiene services, and opening their Day Center in a limited capacity. Like many other places, they’ve had to pivot by moving some additional on-site services like workforce development and mental health services to their on-site parking area. However, their MADE by DWC flagship store recently reopened for shopping! The store offers discounted clothes, products from local entrepreneurs, and their signature line of candles all available for purchase. All proceeds go directly toward continuing to support DWC and their social enterprise program. 

At FOUND/LA, we are proud to support the DWC and their MADE BY DWC social enterprise program. At the heart of our mission is the philosophy that entrepreneurship provides the path to stability, and the MADE BY DWC program makes that possible for some of the most vulnerable members of our population. But beyond that, it offers hope: a path to a future that many thought was unattainable. As Lewis says, “”I was experiencing homelessness, but I wasn’t homeless. Homelessness can trap your body but not your mind.” We are happy to support the DWC program and these women on their path to freedom. 

How you can help: 

Follow their account on Instagram 

Shop their home & gift collection

Volunteer at the center

Support the center directly by making a donation.