The Unstoppable Deborah Hughes

Deborah Hughes watches as Kyanna Halliday works on computer coding.

The odds out there for homeless families aren’t good, says Deborah Hughes, who has dedicated the past 25 years to beating those odds.

In Massachusetts, about 20,000 women and children live in shelters, motel rooms, cars, and bus stations. Hughes says that without support services, only 25 percent will make it out of homelessness, and their kids will likely repeat the cycle.

But such statistics can change dramatically when at-risk families are given the right kinds of assistance. As president and CEO of Brookview House, a Dorchester residence for homeless battered women and their offspring, Hughes has seen it happen enough times to make her a believer. Her shelter helps more than 350 mothers and children a year, with 92 percent of them leaving the ranks of homelessness, and 88 percent of the kids finishing high school.

Hughes believes that she can nudge those success rates even higher, and her passion for her work, and the women, is contagious. She recently gave a stirring call-to-action speech before 10,000 attendees at the Massachusetts Conference for Women, where she was presented with the “Be the Change Award,” which recognizes a woman committed to improving her community.

Hughes, 62, garnered a sustained ovation that rivaled her fellow honorees, including an Oscar winner (Lupita Nyong’o) and a likely presidential candidate (Hillary Clinton). Still, she is largely unknown in Boston.

“She’s never had time to stop her work and ‘build a brand,’ ” says Tricia Bradley of Lexington, who nominated Hughes for the award after learning about Brookview and touring it. “It’s clear that she has never sought the limelight.”

But she appears at ease in it. At the awards ceremony, Hughes told the audience why she loves her job: “I get to help moms and kids transform their lives, to share a moment when a mom who initially wouldn’t look me in the eye decides to trust me enough to tell me about her hopes and her dreams. I get invited to their graduations and their children’s graduations.”

Her message — whether in front of thousands or in a one-on-one interview — is delivered with passion and pride, not so much for herself as for the women whose paths got lost in a thicket of abuse and poverty but who, with help at Brookview, found their way. When she speaks of a previously homeless girl who is trying to decide between Boston Latin School or Dana Hall, Hughes sounds like a proud mom. Which, in a way, she is. “I become a member of the family,” she says, flashing her trademark wide smile. She is a warm woman who likes to laugh and loves to show off the shelter.

She is also part social worker, part advocate, part preacher and teacher to the hundreds of families she has guided through Brookview. They call, stop by, write and send photos of their kids: “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds,” she says.

Southern hospitality

Working with homeless, abused women is in Hughes’s DNA.

Though her own upbringing in Roxbury and Dorchester was warm and stable, she saw domestic violence in her community. (“The police would come and tell the guy, ‘Take a walk, buddy, and come back later.’ ”) But she grew up in a home whose doors were always open to a steady stream of kids who had no other place to go.

“I think the spark was placed in my childhood,” she says, “because our home was the place where you could come and you could have a meal.”

Word got out. Her parents, who came from the Carolinas, frequently hosted guests they did not know who were moving to Boston from the South. “My mom was all about ensuring that everybody was taken care of. It’s part of the Southern culture. Homelessness was not something you ever heard or thought of there.”

Though they separated when she was a teenager, Hughes’s parents were nurturing providers for their children, she says. Her father worked construction, her mother took restaurant jobs.

The youngest of five, Hughes graduated from Girls’ High School in Roxbury, then went to Wellesley College, where she majored in philosophy. She earned her master’s degree in education at Cambridge College.

She had thought about becoming a teacher, and although she’s never had her own classroom, those who know her say she’s a master instructor. One Brookview alumna, Angela Veale, years ago became homeless after her mother died and she lost her job as a retail store manager. She and her kids ended up at Brookview.

“Deborah welcomed us as though we were guests staying at her home,” she says. “She got to know my daughters and my son personally. She changed our lives.” Veale has been in her own apartment for 10 years and works as Hughes’s executive assistant.

Hughes’s first job was at Roxbury Community Health Center, making home visits to see that people kept their appointments. Then she worked at the American Cancer Society, going into the minority community to talk about mammograms and cancer prevention.

In 1989, she and another woman, Carolyn Ramsey, came up with the idea of starting a fund that would funnel money to various battered women’s groups, and so was born the Jane Doe Safety Fund, now Jane Doe Inc. “Fund-raising was scattered and hard to do back then,” says Hughes, who has a grown son she raised as a single mom in the house where she still lives, a 10-minute walk from Brookview.

Learning environment

To really understand Deborah Hughes, you have to visit Brookview, where she went to work in 1990 as a consultant. In the afternoons, if you walked into the sunny house just off Blue Hill Avenue, you might think you’d stumbled into a school instead of a shelter. In one room, girls work on computer coding, in another boys do a LEGO challenge, and the infant room is filled with babies and toddlers, books and toys. There are full-day Saturday and summer programs.

Brookview has established close ties with private schools and colleges, and interns and professionals volunteer their time. “In the summer, architects and engineers come in and do a class,” says Mercedes Tompkins, Brookview’s development director. “The kids might learn to build a model school house, and they also learn math concepts.”

Mothers take classes, too, on self-esteem, safety, parenting, addiction, careers, and financial literacy.

On a recent day, Tia Cottrell is mixing spaghetti sauce on her stove, in a spacious Brookview apartment she shares with her children, ages 17 and 9. They had been living with relatives but it was overcrowded — nine of them in three bedrooms — and they had to leave.

For the past year, thanks to Brookview, Cottrell and her kids each had a bedroom of their own. Her son, a high school senior, has a job at the Boys & Girls Club and is working on college essays with an intern at the shelter. Her daughter gets homework help there every weekday afternoon. Now, equipped with a Section 8 housing voucher, Cottrell is looking for permanent housing, with Brookview’s help. She is also taking online college courses.

The aim, as Hughes puts it, is to push the “reset button” for families like the Cottrells. Brookview offers a dozen free two- and three-bedroom apartments in Dorchester, where the average stay is 18 months, and another 12 units of permanent housing in Roxbury, where renters pay one-third of their income. Families are referred by the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

In 2009, with funds from the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, Brookview established the Dorchester Women’s Safety Network. The partnership of shelters, churches, and Carney Hospital work together on services for victims of domestic violence.

Brookview’s budget is about $2 million a year, 65 percent of it from city, state, and federal funds. The rest comes from private donations, foundations, and an annual fall fund-raiser. The organization recently bought three vacant lots nearby and plans to open another Brookview House in January 2017, but there’s the matter of raising $5 million. Meanwhile, on Hughes’s wish list is a van for outings such as hikes in the Blue Hills.

Personally, she takes few outings. “Brookview is my life,” she says.

Her last vacation? Pause. “To New Orleans. I love it in the early summertime.”

When? Another pause. “Now that I think about it, it was pre-Katrina.” (Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005.)

As a young idealist a quarter century ago, Hughes thought Brookview’s work would be over by now. But the opposite has occurred. “I don’t see our work ending because homelessness is on the increase, and most homeless women have been abused,” she says.

Brookview helps those women find jobs, but while the housing market is expensive, the job market is cheap. “It’s about $1,500 for a two-bedroom apartment in Dorchester,” says Hughes. “This is not a minimum-wage housing market, but it’s a minimum-wage-earning community.”

Right now, she’s working on an open house at Brookview on Tuesday, to show off her shelter to some of those who attended the Massachusetts Conference for Women in hopes that they’ll get involved. For Hughes, it remains all about women helping women.

“It’s more than a tradition,” she says. “It is stamped on our genes. It is how and why we survive.”

See story in Boston Globe.