In honor of Women’s History Month, ESKW/Architects wanted to spotlight the inspiring women we work with. One of the first to come to mind was Danielle Minelli Pagnotta, Executive Director of Providence House (PH), a non-profit-organization (NPO) equipped with a unique, gender-responsive, trauma-informed, and community-focused approach to providing housing for vulnerable women and their children. Having recently completed a feasibility study for one of their properties, ESKW/A was moved by the wisdom and compassion imbued in Providence House’s efforts to help other women. With the help of our firm’s Justice Equity Diversity and Inclusion Group, we set up an interview with Danielle to hear her story and learn more about the work of Providence House.

Women Helping Women: Introducing Danielle

Since she was young, Danielle knew that she wanted to be in a profession that helped others. Instilled with her mother’s hard-working spirit and “hand-up, not hand-out” perspective on personal agency and overcoming adversity, Danielle transformed her experience of family hardship and loss into a core impetus for the work she does for Providence House. Initially aspiring to be a middle-school educator, Danielle switched to social work in college after an eye-opening John Kozol lecture that reframed her understanding of social inequalities and their solutions:

“I remember being brought to tears listening to his stories about kids in the South Bronx who could barely survive in their environments let alone focus on learning. I thought that if I really wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids in certain communities, I had to work on more broad challenges that could make more of a systemic impact.”

Since then, Danielle has been involved in homeless services for both the government agencies and NPOs. Having witnessed a family member struggle with addiction, homelessness, and incarceration, she is keenly aware of how her field intersects with many social issues—substance abuse, mental health, incarceration, affordable housing, education, employment, medical care and more. While there are several factors that play into her line of work, Danielle believes in a simple but profound truth:

“Providing housing begins to take people out of survival mode so they can start to focus on other issues. It sounds so basic, but for people who are homeless, they can’t even begin to think about other things when they don’t know where they might be sleeping that night.”

Although she “never set out to run an organization,” Danielle’s work ethic and approach always pushed her towards thinking about systemic solutions to challenging issues. Having had the pleasure to work with her, we sense that Danielle’s collaborative and team-based, leadership style must have been a factor in making her a respected and appreciated figure not only at Providence House but in all the initiatives she is part of. Outside of her office, Danielle’s favorite activities include listening to her residents’ stories, completing 5ks alongside them, and being part of activist groups that fight for the funding and policy changes needed for systemic change.

As a mother of two young children, explaining all that she does can be overwhelming. When asked if her children know what her work is she responded, “What is important to me is not necessarily that they know what I do, but instead that they understand the importance of treating others with respect and dignity. We have become a self-absorbed and self-serving society and my priority is on getting them to understand that it’s not just about us. Everyone deserves to feel love, respect, and support.”

While this may be a lesson for her children, Danielle’s palpable commitment to humanistic values inspires and guides our work at ESKW/A.

Read our interview with her, below, to learn more about Danielle and the history and work of Providence House:

Tell us about the idea of women helping women? Why is this important?

There is no doubt that women coming through PH programs have had inadequate opportunities and support, but there is something really special and uplifting about women being able to deliver services. Women’s experience of life is so very different from that of men. Many women are very relational and build off that vibe to help each other get stronger. A woman’s experience of homelessness and incarceration is different than a man’s; in most cases women are taking the lead on children. When/if separated from kids, the impact can be passed along to another generation very quickly. Our founders had an innate understanding of the needs of women and the importance of keeping families together.

What is the current mission of Providence House and how has it changed since its inception?

Sr. Elaine, our foundress, was a visionary but also kept it really simple. She saw that many women released from prison didn’t have a safe home to return to, so she offered up all she could for these women which at the time was her own living space and hospitality. Nothing was out of bounds for her, she saw needs and figured out the best way to fill those gaps. This was mostly centered on providing housing for women who were homeless coming home from prison.

At our core PH still provides housing for people many of whom are involved with the criminal justice system, but we continue to evolve our social services to best meet the needs of the women we serve. For example, over the past few years we have more and more trans residents— a population that disproportionately experiences incarceration. In recognizing this change in our residences, we now make sure that our staff receives gender-responsive training so that all women feel safe and dignified within our residences.
Over the past few years, we’ve also become more involved in the advocacy around the policies that affect the people coming through our programs. So many of these policies, like how and where we incarcerate women in the city, have a direct and profound impact on the lives of underserved communities, like our residents, and we will continue to advocate for a more equitable system to improve the city as a whole.

What processes are in place for client feedback about their experience with Providence House? Any data to share?

We do keep in touch with residents after they move out into the community, and they can always call their case manager or other staff when they hit a tough spot. We do have a formal support group of formerly incarcerated women who meet monthly to share each other’s experiences, talk over common challenges, and figure out solutions–as well as to enjoy each other’s company and build community. We also know that participation at Providence House matters. Typically, people who exit the criminal justice system are at a very high risk of returning within just a few years. But of the 39 women who went through our Women’s Justice Program last year, only one has been rearrested.

What policy changes would you like to see to better impact your clients and the work you are able to do?

Housing, housing, housing. Transitional shelters, permanent supportive housing, portable vouchers, ALL KINDS OF HOUSING. It’s the biggest need in New York City and long has been. Rent increases are scorching, year after year. Even with a slight stalling during the pandemic, rents are back up. It affects everyone and it hits the most vulnerable hardest. As a city we must keep grappling with it and finding solutions. The city and state commitments to permanent supportive housing are a step in the right direction. Now, the challenge is to get as many units on line as quickly as possible and to keep finding funds to build more. It’s a huge need.

How do you engage the end users or those with lived experience when developing projects?

I can only speak for the current program we are developing as everything else was in place when I arrived. There is so much value to incorporating end users in the process of developing programs. It does not have to be any sophisticated process; it just needs to be done. Focus groups, surveys, personal conversations – they all work. Program and/or policy development cannot be done in a bubble. How better to understand the needs than to ask people who will use the services. Even more impactful and empowering is bringing that group of people in to have a hand in the development and decision making.
We’re currently considering our options for developing one of our owned properties to serve more women or families with criminal justice backgrounds, through transitional housing or possibly permanent supportive housing. We have some great partners in that work—including ESKW/A!—and one of the most exciting and surprising things we did was to have a focus group with women who had been incarcerated. We found that some of their preferences around color or design differed from staff, which is really helpful to know. But we did all agree on the need for both safe, private space to step back, as well as shared space where residents can be together and form a real, mutually supportive community.

How has your understanding of built environment needs (the architecture of the building) changed over time? Any lessons learned over time or standards Providence House has developed?

Up until a few years ago Providence House was made up of primarily small, congregate residences throughout the city. Most residences had shared common spaces and kitchens so residents were really living alongside each other which created a real sense of community. As wonderful as these facilities were for inspiring these connections for residents, they were older buildings that required a lot of upkeep and really limited the number of people we could serve at a time. We decided that we could serve more residents in a more sustainable way if we invested in newer, larger, apartment-style residences like our new East New York transitional facility which opened in the Fall of 2020 and can serve up to 59 large families at a time. Our challenge now on a programmatic level is how to build that sense of community back into our services, to ensure that residents are building these connections and aren’t feeling isolated or alone in this transitional chapter of their lives.

Thank you to Danielle, Providence House and the Justice Equity Diversity and Inclusion Group at ESKW/A for making this possible.