Renee Washington's descent from financial comfort to near-homelessness took nine years.
In that time, the 56-year-old West Chester resident was laid off from a $40,000-a-year job and lost her mother to cancer. Three years later, Washington, by then with no health insurance, also was found to have the disease.
That devastating events exhausted Washington's finances. The administrative assistant lost her longtime family home. Within weeks of having to leave, she turned to Home of the Sparrow.
The Exton-based social services nonprofit had recently focused more attention on people like Washington: women 50 to 62 who find themselves where they never thought they would be - unable to afford housing.
"I would have ended up sleeping on a couch at a friend's house, or moving to Atlanta to stay with relatives," Washington said.
Instead Washington moved into a Home of the Sparrow residence occupied mostly by women in similar circumstances. They are women too old for the kind of aid available to young mothers with minor children, and too young for many government-subsidized senior housing programs, said Matrie Johnson, Home of the Sparrow's director of program. Housing spots that are available have long waiting lists, or the lists are closed altogether, Johnson said.
So Home of the Sparrow, which has spent two decades helping homeless women and children, has retooled its mission to include a focus on older women. Its longtime house in West Chester is now a residence mostly for single women over 50 in need of housing and a way back to financial stability.
Since 1994, Home of the Sparrow has provided housing services including rental assistance, matching women who need housing with homeowners willing to rent rooms, and facilitating job and financial literacy training.
Last year, it helped 433 women and children. Its annual budget is $1.3 million.
Next year, the organization will open its newest low-income transition residence in Coatesville, one geared for women 50 and over.
The property on East Lincoln Highway is being renovated to house five apartments and is scheduled to open in June 2016. Called the Catherine Twomey House, the residence was donated by Patricia Walsh, an artist who lives on the Main Line and served as a volunteer cook with the Home of the Sparrow.
"It's always been a dream of mine to create some kind of safe house," Walsh said. "I am a 60-year-old woman, and I can't imagine getting to this time of life and losing everything. I just always think that there but for the grace of God go I."
More than 204,000 adults ages 51 to 61 in the U.S. are homeless and live in shelters, according to the Hearth Inc., a Boston-based nonprofit that works to end homelessness among the elderly.
More than a quarter of women 50 to 62 who responded to a survey by the Public Health Management Corp. reported that they were living at or near poverty level, and almost half said they had had trouble finding housing in the last two years.
Women in that age group sometimes tumble into homelessness as a result of a job loss, catastrophic health problems, complications from caregiving for a sick loved one, or the death of a spouse, experts say.
"They try to keep up the mortgage. Then they start dipping into their 401(k)s and end up paying all those taxes," said Patricia McLennan, Sparrow's CEO.
The nonprofit's newest residence is an expansive, three-level building. One apartment has been completed. Area companies are donating much of the $300,000 in labor and materials it will take to renovate the property.
The house cost $225,000 in 2015.
The house is named for an aunt in Walsh's husband's family who served as a World War II Army nurse and public health administrator. She never married and lived with relatives.
Washington's long road to Home of the Sparrow began when she was laid off from her job as an administrative assistant with Chester County in 2006. At the time, she lived with her mother in the family's longtime West Chester home.
"I went from a $40,000 job to a $12,000 job, and then there was the unexpected death of my mother. I lost her income as well," Washington said.
Washington tried to make it work with the salary she receives as a part-time administrative assistant at the Charles A. Melton Arts and Education Center in West Chester, which provides an income just $1,000 above the federal poverty level.
Then in 2009, she was found to have breast cancer. She qualified for Medicaid, which has paid for her treatment. But the financial burden of maintaining the house overwhelmed her.
Washington was given 30 days to move out.
Eventually, someone told her about Home of the Sparrow, which gets its name from a biblical passage that says "Even the sparrow has found a home." (The program has no religious affiliation.)
Washington moved into the nonprofit's West Chester home in March. Her room is cozy, with a twin bed, her mother's easy chair, a slew of family pictures, and a small, yet-to-be-decorated artificial Christmas tree.
She pays $300 rent, is getting help with budgeting and long-term housing goals, and is looking for a full-time job.
"Sure, it's heartbreaking," Washington said. "But my faith is very important to me. I gave it over to God, and so far it's worked out. It also helps when you have an agency of people that care."