Constance Collins remembers the first time she saw a homeless woman. She was 13, and the sight of a lady scrounging through garbage for food during a blistering New York winter left her feeling heartbroken and powerless. Decades later, just as she was becoming disillusioned with a lucrative yet essentially heartless career in commercial real estate and finance, a similar sight brought those emotions barreling back.

“I saw a woman bathing in the fountain of the last project I developed, a half-a-million-square-foot project in Coral Gables,” Collins remembers. “I asked her why she wasn’t in a shelter, and she said it was too dangerous for a woman.” Collins realized she didn’t want to look back and say real estate was all she had done with her life.

With a reawakened compassion, Collins founded Lotus House, a shelter for homeless women in the heart of poverty-stricken, drug-ravaged Overtown. If the shelter’s name rings a bell, maybe you’ve shopped for vintage threads at its thrift shop in Wynwood. The home itself, however, remains unknown to many.

When it first opened in 2006, the shelter housed 34 women in one building with very little staff. “Those were the days I can remember going to the grocery store every week and pushing one cart in front of me and pulling another behind, and coming back to cook meals with the women in a tiny efficiency kitchen,” Collins says. “It still wasn’t enough. We were flooded with women.”

Today, Lotus House serves more than 68,000 meals a year, and houses over 110 women and children daily in three buildings. It has sheltered more than 900 people, including 246 children of which 84 were newborns calling Lotus House their first home. With an array of counselors, a free clinic staffed by volunteer teaching doctors and medical students from the University of Miami, self-improvement classes, and a successful employment-training program, the shelter addresses the unique needs of women trying to get off the streets and back on their feet. Key to this is the heart-based approach to those seeking refuge.

“Close to 90 percent of women who are homeless were victims of trauma, usually starting in childhood,” Collins says. “So often women who were abused as children end up abusing themselves. The women who come here really need this as a sanctuary to learn how to love themselves. They need gender-specific support in order to rebuild their lives.”

This year promises more growth: Lotus House will open a fourth home for high schoolers and young mothers. And the thrift store is moving to a new, permanent location, complete with an online store, an e-commerce job-training program, and a coffee bar with barista training.

“There is so much need, but this isn’t work—it’s a labor of love,” Collins says. “I don’t call it getting a second chance, because most of these women never had a first chance.” Help out Lotus House: Call 305-438-0556 or visit lotushouseshelter.org/friends to get involved.

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