New WINGS Metro women’s shelter opens on Southwest Side

Mayor Rahm Emanuel cuts ceremonial ribbon in opening of new WINGS' Metro shelter, the first in a decade.

Text by Elyse Samuels
Audio by Jenny Lee

“To have something that can save other women’s lives,” Amanda Sexton said referring to her mother’s death, “that really means a lot to us.”

Amanda’s mother, Brenda Sexton, was a Chicago police officer in the 9th Police District. She died at the hands of her abusive boyfriend 15 years ago.

With tears in her eyes, Sexton attended the ribbon cutting ceremony for the opening of a new WINGS Metro shelter on the Southwest Side last week. The shelter, which includes a garden named in honor of her mother, is part of the WINGS Program, Inc., one of the largest non-profit organizations committed to fighting domestic violence in Chicago.

This is the first domestic violence shelter to open in the city in over a decade. WINGS CEO Rebecca Darr said she hopes the shelter will help prevent more stories like Sexton’s.

Brenda Sexton’s five children attended the ceremony in honor of their mother.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke at the ribbon cutting, citing the need for a larger focus on domestic violence issues and saying, “It’s the Number One phone call to 911.”

When asked why it has taken so long to open a women’s shelter Darr’s answer was simple.“Money.”

“Projects like this typically don’t happen,” Darr said. “In many of the states, none of the state budget goes to support domestic violence. This facility alone will cost $1.2 million.”

This particular project had some unusual city support, including the donated building, which ironically was the old police station where Brenda Sexton worked. Additionally, the city contributed $1.8 million from a settlement in a 2013 lawsuit against the VIP’s Gentleman’s Club in Lincoln Park. Emanuel called the use for the money “poetic justice.”

At the end of his speech, Emanuel sighed with relief, “Now, I’ve accomplished my goal of getting through this speech without crying. I’m proud of WINGS, I want them to keep on calling on us to be better angels.”

Purple is the official color representing the fight against domestic violence and is symbolic of the military Purple Heart, which is given for valor. Mary Carollo is sewing the purple fabric from the ceremonial ribbons into a quilt for the center. VersAnnette Blackman, a domestic violence victim, spoke at the opening and created all of the art pieces that adorn the walls of the shelter.

VersAnnette Blackman now uses her art to empower other domestic violence victims.

Blackman spent 10 months in a WINGS shelter in Palatine eight years ago with her two children, who were 8 and 10 at the time. In her greatest time of need, she explained, she had nowhere to go in the city before she found WINGS’ suburban location. She said this shelter will add resources for women in the city.

“Domestic violence is an issue that we can’t afford not to respond to,” Blackman said. “So here I am. Here we are. Mountains are moving. It’s a new day in Chicago…this gives my heart so much joy.”

The shelter officially opened on Valentine’s Day and will host 20 women during the first month of operation. Ultimately the shelter will accommodate a total of 52 women. The City of Chicago predicts the shelter with 40 temporary beds, five apartments, counseling services, and general support will increase the city’s capacity to help families by 35 percent.

“I hope that people come here and say, ‘wow this is really nice,’” Blackman said. “And they start to feel differently about themselves and what they can do and what they can expect. All the things you would want a woman in that situation to have, she’ll get here.”

Photo at top: Mayor Rahm Emanuel cuts ceremonial ribbon in opening of new WINGS’ Metro shelter, the first in a decade. (Elyse Samuels/MEDILL)