"I love the fact that it's so small," Freeman said in her office at the 5 Prowitt St. building that currently has two vacancies. "It allows me to have an intimate relationship with the ladies who are here.
"You get to interact with them quite a bit. ... I enjoy the administrative aspect of the job, but I enjoy having conversations and a cup of coffee with the ladies and talking about life."
Freeman said she formerly worked for 11 years as the homeless services director at Inspirica, formerly known as St. Luke's LifeWorks in Stamford, and that Inspirica had room for at least 35 families, with 65 to 70 children on any given night.
"It wasn't easy to get to know everyone," she said.
At Malta House, Freeman said she can better identify how to help women because she gets to truly know them. She said homelessness isn't always caused by substance abuse or mental health problems and that hearing a person out, helping them set goals and being honest are the best ways to help.
"If you have an unrealistic goal -- let's say you desire to be an engineer and you can't get past Math 101 and you're 30 years old -- I'm going to tell you that's probably not going to happen," she said.
But Freeman said she believes that the answers to many of the women's problems can be found within themselves and that they find those answers when given a compassionate ear and the atmosphere to figure things out.
Freeman said the size of Malta House also enables her to immediately help someone. She recalled a resident who needed a plug on her sink because she kept losing things down the drain and Freeman drove to the Home Depot and picked one up.
"You'd think I brought in a can of gold," Freeman said. "It's interesting to watch people get excited about things like that."
But Freeman said she's also experienced disappointments in her first seven weeks as Malta House's executive director.
"When we can't provide the services; when you can't do things because the money isn't there; when women have been here a long time and it's starting to look bleak; when I have to make a referral to another shelter instead of something successful; that is not a good thing," she said.
Freeman started at Malta House Nov. 19 after the retirement of Linda Gabriele, its former executive director, and she said she "walked into a very well-run program." But she said the nation's economy five years ago wasn't what it is today and that she'd like to make changes to help women at Malta House find jobs and transition to apartments. Those changes, she said, include increasing hours that Malta House offers childcare for its residents and giving women financial assistance when they're ready to leave.
Freeman said childcare is available from 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but she'd like to extend that to 6 p.m. so women have more flexibility in getting a job. She said she'd also love to start a New Beginnings program in which women are given from $500 to $1,000 worth of gifts when they leave, such as gift cards at supermarkets or department stores. Many women lose their savings after getting an apartment because they usually have to pay a security deposit and first and last month's rent and buy small appliances, cleaning supplies and curtains, Freeman said.
"I don't want that to suck them dry of the little bit of savings they have while they're here," she said.
Malta House is looking into getting a $10,000 grant so it can help women with expenses associated with moving into an apartment and making it a home, Freeman said.
As far as donations from individuals, Malta House mostly needs gift cards, diapers for older children (they have a lot of diapers for newborns) and clothing, but they prefer that the clothing be new. In the past, people donated car seats and barely-used strollers and high chairs, but Freeman and her staff sometimes turn down those donations because of lack of space.
"Gift cards are small and can be put in the file," Freemans aid. "Food gift cards are certainly first, but even gift cards to Kohl's or Wal-Mart, so the ladies can get what they want to get" are good.
In addition to rooms for 10 families, Malta House also has two kitchens, a dining room, TV room, nursery, chapel and laundry room.
Women at Malta House buy and cook their own food, but the transitional housing program also has a pantry of donated food, and volunteers sometimes cook meals for the residents. People also occasionally donate gift cards for grocery stores, Freeman said.
"I think a lot of that happened because of the holiday," she said of the donated gift cards, "but I would love to see people donate that on a regular basis."
Women at Malta House also are assigned chores each week, such as cleaning floors and taking out garbage. Malta House isn't an emergency shelter. Women have to fill out an application and be interviewed before they can live there and its residents have either been referred by another agency or have called or stopped by, Freeman said.
She said residents have to be actively pursuing employment or education, but if they're pregnant or close to delivering their baby, those requirements aren't enforced so much. Women can stay at Malta House for 18 months, and most stay from 14 to 17 months. Because of space, children can't be older than 3, Freeman said.
As of last week, eight women and seven children lived at Malta House, and two of the women each had two children. Freeman said pregnant women at Malta House have due dates in February, March and May and that one of Malta House's main missions is to prevent a woman from aborting her baby because she can't afford it.
"We are a Catholic-run organization and that's really the reason we are here, so we can not have women make that choice," she said.
Malta House has a Mass in its chapel once a month and, after that, a dinner with residents, staff and members of the board of directors.
"This board knows the ladies," Freeman said. "They look to get to know them. That's a rarity. Most board members (at other shelters) have no idea."
Malta House also has a case manager who helps women keep a budget, access entitlements and set goals for themselves, which could include getting a high school diploma or re-entering the workforce, Freeman said. She said Malta House makes referrals for women who need jobs to the city agencies NEON and CTWorks and runs a computer training class at Norwalk Community College. She said Malta House also makes referrals to Mercy Learning Center.
Malta House, a nonprofit, opened in 1998. Freeman, who also previously worked as director of quality assurance at Laurel House in Stamford, a mental health organization, said she had visited Malta House in the past and was so impressed by it that she applied to work there when she saw an opening.
Women at Malta House often build friendships and new residents are made to feel welcome by women already there, Freeman said.
"What I do like is I don't worry about the new ones coming in because someone's embracing them," she said.
After a woman moves out of Malta House, Freeman and the staff get busy preparing her old room for another resident.
"We take great pride in showing a room to a potential resident, that they can really feel good about being in," she said.
People who would like to make a cash donation to Malta House can send a check to Malta House Inc., 5 Prowitt St., Norwalk, CT 06855. Gift cards can be dropped off in person and Freeman asks that people who would like to donate car seats or food call ahead to 203-857-0088 so the staff can plan for that.