Sylvia Winston thought she was getting a rental property when she bought the vacant house at 317 E. Williams St. six years ago. What she ended up with was a mission, and a constant struggle to maintain it.
“That was when I saw a lady living in a box around the corner. I couldn't believe she had no place to stay,” said Winston, who in that moment was inspired to turn the house into a shelter for homeless women and their children – and to offer one woman a clean, safe room instead of cardboard.
So was born Premier Palace I, which was followed a year later by Premier Palace II at 229 E. Masterston Ave. Hundreds of people have since found refuge there, and if Winston has found the experience rewarding it has also demonstrated that no good deed goes unpunished. Although the shelters do receive some donations, the part-time health-care worker has augmented their meager budgets with her own money.
The work is just too important – it's God's work, she insists – to do otherwise.
Although there are other women's shelters in town, including the YWCA's and Rescue Mission's Charis House, many have waiting lists and not all accept children. So Winston does what she can, her two shelters providing a lifeline to as many as 26 people at a time. As of last week, all but two beds were filled.
One of them belonged to 38-year-old Danyal, who doesn't know where she and her three children would be if not for Winston's generosity and determination.
“She saved me,” said Danyal, a nurse in training who needed refuge from a bad domestic situation and found it after a friend told her about Premier Palace. “I want to get my own home, but this is working out good.”
Like all residents, Danyal had to accept certain expectations before moving in. They have to do chores, are taught to cook and attend Bible study, and Winston also helps the women – some of whom have just been released from prison or referred by police – seek job skills, employment or help with substance abuse and other problems.
Without a large staff at her disposal, Winston can't keep track of every person who has ever benefited from Premier Palace. “But some of them do come back and talk to me or call. I think at least 80 percent do better (after they leave),” she said.
Although there is no limit on the amount of time someone can stay at Premier Palace, Winston is adamant that her services are intended as a bridge to a better life, not a final destination. She also does not accept boys older than 12, because she has four of her own and knows they can need attention her shelter is not equipped to provide.
Eventually, Winston would like to find a larger building so she could consolidate her efforts in one place. But that would take something that is already in short supply: money.
According to its 2011 tax return, the not-for-profit Premier Palace Inc. received a little over $15,200 in donations, with a balance of just $20 at the end of the year. Even though she receives help from local food banks, that's not a lot of money – especially when the cost of utilities keeps going up. So she's hosting an open house at Premier Palace II this week, hoping to let the public know not only that her shelters are here, but that they need help to remain here for the benefit of people with nowhere else to go.
Being dependent upon others should never become so comfortable that it becomes a permanent way of life, but most of us need help at some point in our lives but are lucky enough to have family and friends upon whom we can depend. Few of us share Winston's determination to be there, at least temporarily, for those who for whatever reason seem to have been left behind.
And, in so doing, she serves not only others but God himself.
“I feel like Premier Palace is a mission, God's mission for me. It's my way of giving back.”
She hopes others will feel the same way.