She’s Come a Long Way

She’s Come a Long Way


Liz Varela works tirelessly to help the women and kids at Midway Shelter.

Building Futures and Midway Shelter have a solid advocate in Liz Varela.

Liz Varela has a longtime interest in helping homeless women and children, tracing it back to her college days. Today, she is executive director of Building Futures with Women and Children in Alameda and works tirelessly to help the women and kids at Midway Shelter get back on their feet after homelessness or violent living situations and go into places of their own.


How is Building Futures associated with Midway Shelter?

The Midway Shelter is a 25-bed homeless shelter for women and children in Alameda. It was founded in 1989 by a group of Alameda community leaders tasked by the then-mayor of Alameda. The group called itself Alameda Homeless Network, or AHN. From the very beginning, the Alameda community has opened its arms to help support women and children at Midway. In 2000, AHN asked Building Futures, based in San Leandro, to take over shelter operations. Building Futures provides a wide range of programs and is helping individuals and families rebuild safe and stable lives after homelessness and family violence. In Alameda, Building Futures operates the Midway Shelter, provides domestic violence services, heads the Alameda Domestic Violence Task Force, and owns and operates Bessie Coleman Court, which is 52 units of permanent supportive housing for formally homeless survivors of domestic violence on Alameda Point.


What is your wish for the Midway Shelter?

Our primary goal is to have a new facility for our shelter. We are currently working out of decades-old trailers. We do our very best to keep it fresh and cheerful, but it is definitely time for us to upgrade to a new building structure with better surroundings somewhere on the Island. There is so much more we want to offer and give to those in need of our services. Last year, we housed 64 women and 47 children, and 25 percent of our residences were children under the age of 5. Due to the housing crisis, it is harder now to end homelessness. While residents aren’t happy to be in a shelter, they are grateful to have somewhere safe to go. Our biggest priority is connecting our shelter residents to housing. We have housing programs to help find housing and the financial assistance to help the family stabilize in housing for up to a year. So our wish is to have our physical facility, making it feel more like a home.


What do most people not know about your group or about the people at your shelter? 

Building Futures has a 24-hour domestic violence crisis line, 1-866-A WAY OUT, and can help callers with the help they need. Building Futures runs two other shelters, housing programs, and domestic violence programs. Women can always find safety with us. I think people would be surprised to learn how much domestic violence goes on in their own community; no neighborhood is immune. According to the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, 90 percent of homeless women have experienced severe physical or sexual abuse in their lives; 63 percent are survivors of domestic violence. Clients’ needs can range from someone in need of a place while they save money for an apartment to someone with complex challenges, like mental illness and fleeing domestic violence. But many were made homeless by a critical event like a layoff, major rent hike, or sudden illness. I think there are a lot of misunderstandings out there about how and why people end up homeless.


Tell me about your personal journey with the Midway Shelter/Building Futures.

I was a women’s studies major in college and wrote my thesis on homeless women and children. The cause has always been a passion of mine, and I’ve never been able to accept that so many women are unsafe and homeless. After graduation, I started volunteering at Building Futures San Leandro Shelter. I worked my way up to program director then to executive director. When I started at Building Futures in 1993, we had a $250,000 budget; today, we’re a  $3.5 million agency with a full spectrum of programs and services addressing homelessness and domestic violence. We’ve come a long way and aren’t done. I am very dedicated to helping people who have nowhere else to go. I’m also incredibly grateful and in awe of the constant support our program receives from Alamedans.


How can people help?

There are many ways that individuals and groups can support the shelter and help our residents establish brighter futures. One is to support the Midway Race by sponsoring or running in the fun 5K, put on by Alameda Homeless Network on the first Saturday every December. Register at Also, check out our 4th of July race. All proceeds benefit Midway Shelter. Donating gift cards is another great way to help. We use them all year ’round to support our holiday drive, children’s birthdays, purchasing new school clothes, first day on the job, and items for newly housed shelter residents. To donate items or to learn about volunteer needs, contact Lorie Curtis at 510-357-0205, ext. 206. And, of course, monetary donations are much needed and appreciated. Readers can make a secure online donation to support Midway Shelter at Every—and any—contribution really does help.


Published online on Dec. 6, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.