It looked like an impossible task.
Around 2012, then-pastor Susan Kramer-Mills knew the dwindling congregation of her New Brunswick First Reformed Church couldn’t raise the millions of dollars it needed to renovate the 200-year-old house of worship. But as she investigated ways to save the building, she recalled the time, 40 years earlier, when an abusive man had burned the sanctuary, angry that the church had sheltered his girlfriend, a victim of domestic violence.
“We said, ‘God was telling us to do something,’” Kramer-Mills says, “so, like a phoenix, let’s bring some hope out of the ashes and help survivors of domestic violence.”
Over the next four years, she helped form the nonprofit Town Clock CDC, working with social service agencies, land developers and Bergen County United Way to transform the church into a residence hall called Dina’s Dwellings. Established in April 2016, the converted 10-unit apartment building—the largest of three such facilities in New Jersey—provides affordable, long-term housing to female survivors of domestic abuse and their children. In addition to professional, financial and educational counseling, Town Clock offers cooking and art classes and a stocked pantry.
Town Clock CDC has hosted 28 residents, including children, since its inception.
As executive director, Kramer-Mills says some residents—many stay an average of four to five years—struggle with depression, anxiety and PTSD. But through Town Clock’s therapeutic and programmatic resources, “We’re teaching people how to live.” As one current resident attests, Dina’s Dwellings is a place “where I could heal and stand up to face the world again. It’s a place where we, the survivors, can sleep knowing the next day, we’ll greet the sun with a smile on our faces.”
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 57 percent of homeless women cite domestic violence as the cause of their homelessness, and 33 percent have experienced domestic violence in their lifetime. Children who have been domestically abused are three times more likely to repeat the cycle of abuse in adulthood, according to the Childhood Domestic Violence Association.
“How can you take that next step of freeing yourself from abuse with your children when you don’t have anywhere to go?” asks Town Clock board president Rebecca Escobar. “There are shelters, which are great, [but] we are able to provide permanent housing that is safe and peaceful.”
In 2019, Town Clock turned First Reformed’s custodial home into the Barbara Littman House, offering housing to an entire family. It has also raised funds for another expansion project that will add six more apartments and a nutrition training center. It’s a small response to a pervasive problem in the state and the country.
“We give survivors time to heal—that’s the goal,” Kramer-Mills says. “If they didn’t have this time, where would they be?”
Founded in 2016, Town Clock CDC strives to provide long-term, affordable, safe housing and supportive services to survivors of domestic violence and their children. Town Clock CDC welcomes donations and volunteers. For more information, visit townclockcdc.org.
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