Fire Damages Historic Church, Women’s Shelter

The blaze at Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village also spread to a safe haven for women

| 11 Dec 2020 | 10:16

Ash-tinted brick. Scattered, cracked stained glass. Nearly two dozen women, displaced.

When the 128-year-old Middle Collegiate Church burned on Second Avenue in the East Village on Dec. 5, the fire spread to and devastated the infrastructure of another safe haven: the Hopper Home, a shelter for single women.

The building, and the group that runs it, have a long and storied history. Abigail Hopper Gibbons, an abolitionist, established the Women’s Prison Association in 1845. Two years later, the group settled into a Greek Revival Style rowhouse — the nation’s first halfway house for girls and women released from incarceration.

It has been a place of refuge ever since.

Most women come to WPA in crisis, wrote Diana McHugh, WPA’s Director of Communications, in an email to Our Town. A need for assistance often stems from what the group views as the criminalization of poverty, homelessness, and/or violence.

Aid for the affected women, according to McHugh, is a part of a much larger continuum of care, one that is focused on individual need and the nuance of circumstance. The association provides everything from alternatives to incarceration to workforce development and arts-based therapy.

Excerpts from the Q&A with McHugh about the fire, the displaced women, the association’s work and where things go from here:

What is the extent of the fire damage?

The full extent of the damage is still unknown. We are hopeful from early assessment that the building is structurally sound and while we await a clear timeline, we are confident our work there will resume.

How will the association’s work be impacted by the fire?

We have and will continue to adapt our work such that there is no interruption in support to our participants. Our highest priority was to safely relocate our Hopper Home residents. That effort was immediate and successful - and we continue to check in daily with each of the 22 women. We are providing everything they need from clothing to clinical support, and we are thankful for the outpouring of community support that has made much of that work seamless.

WPA has supported women for 175 years and there is really no crisis, at this point, that can keep us from doing that. Plans have been made for Hopper Home’s staff to cover other areas of WPA’s work while the building is offline and, as always, the team has mobilized to respond beyond their job descriptions to keep us up and running.

How are the displaced women doing?

The women and staff alike are all managing in their unique ways - and it’s really different day by day. Most women come to WPA with histories of trauma, so while this event has us hyper-focused on the mental health of our participants, luckily, this is also our area of expertise.

In this moment of media attention, what is one thing you want the public to know about [women and incarceration]?

Ultimately, we believe women belong with their families and not behind bars. We hope those in the community who are just learning of us, and who believe the same thing, will stay with us beyond our recovery efforts to support our vision of ending the mass incarceration of women.