Homeless Women's Project in Cambridge, Mass., Gets New Director, Research Report on Success in the Lives of Homeless Women

Helping women who are homeless and in crisis

On the Rise, a community-based program in Cambridge, Mass. that serves homeless women and women in highly unstable situations, created a new program director position and hired a doctoral student who wrote a 2005 research report, What it Means to be Successful: Lessons from the Lives of Homeless Women.

Creation of the new program director position was intended to free the executive director from daily management of staff and clients in order to improve the capacity of the organization to conduct programs for homeless women.

Project staff saw the research report as a prelude to more formal work evaluating On The Rise programs and outcomes. The project lasted from October 2002 through June 2005.

Key Results

  • On The Rise hired a program director in 2003. The program director supervised five outreach workers who staffed On The Rise's Outreach/Safe Haven Program, and several volunteer groups and coordinated with agencies that provide services on site.
  • Hiring of the program director led to the formation of a management team, which included directors of development and communications, finance and administration, and program management and development. It also led to a reconfiguration of the executive director's role, which allowed her to focus on new external initiatives.

Key Findings

The research report on the organization's community of homeless women concluded that the community "was able to create its own alternative vision of social success that prioritizes kindness over affluence, work over salary, and daily decency over bank balance."

In What it Means to be Successful: Lessons from the Lives of Homeless Women, women defined success as:

  • Working in meaningful ways — Many women made a notable distinction between jobs and work, with significant resistance to the former as an indicator of success. Work is described as a "stage for displaying moral worth" and a place to have impact. The importance of personal meaning and personal expression is all the more important for those who have the most to prove to a society that they feel assumes they lack moral fiber.
  • Achieving small victories — Women mentioned overcoming addictions, or having a good day despite bipolar disorder as examples. Often, these small wins are integrally related to the overarching goals of programs and society (staying clean and sober, for example), but as with the work/job dichotomy, the researcher found significant contrasts in how participants described small victories versus their experiences of funders' and programs' large goals.
  • Holding the door open for others — The women wanted to have a positive impact on others, whether it involved talking to other homeless women on the streets or sharing survival strategies with their friends, both for the impact's symbolic nature (having enough resources to be altruistic means one can't be at the bottom of the barrel) and for purely altruistic reasons.
  • Surviving, living and telling — The women felt that survival and telling about it served a redemptive purpose, offering a way to take control of their lives by giving their disparate experiences a purpose.


The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) partially funded the program director position and supported the research project with a $49,982 grant. The project lasted from October 2002 through June 2005.