Warm Haven Serves Homeless Women

The Women's Lunch Place of Boston provides needy guests - many once middle class - with a dignifying and friendly atmosphere, besides a meal

ON Newbury Street outside the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Boston, the temperature has dropped to what feels like 30 degrees below zero. Well-dressed women, some carrying briefcases, hurry inside for luncheon. Just about a block away, in the Church of the Covenant, between 70 and 100 homeless women gather each day at tables decorated with fresh flowers. It's noontime at The Women's Lunch Place, an independent, privately funded facility that since 1982 has provided a meal, a desk, telephone, and a sense of community for women who need help.

While the disparity between rich and poor is nothing new, what is new is that many of these homeless ``guests'' are from surprisingly affluent backgrounds, and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between them and the more than 150 volunteer workers who assist the five-person paid staff on a rotating schedule.

The Women's Lunch Place is supported by individuals, churches, synagogues, corporations, foundations, and yearly grants of less than $5,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Funds are solicited through the facility's newsletter, and those who dine often come as the result of word-of-mouth referrals through homeless shelters.

The staff regularly refers women to legal services, as well as Boston Home Care for the Elderly, Boston Aging Concerns, Health Care for the Homeless, Elders Living at Home Program, and the Hunger Hot-Line, for food-stamp information.

``We try to provide care and compassion,'' explains Jane Alexander, the Women's Lunch Place director. ``We don't turn lives around for people; we help motivate women to do that for themselves.'' She says she believes strongly in respect for each woman's unique individuality.

Many Lunch Place guests, Ms. Alexander says, are from middle-class backgrounds; many are middle-aged or elderly.

``Our volunteers walk away from conversations at the lunch table stunned and moved at how much they have in common with these women,'' Alexander says.

``Public perception of these [homeless] women,'' says Jean Wassell, coordinator for Senior Home Care in Boston, ``is that of a poor, inner-city, undereducated population who may suffer from clinical depression, substance abuse, and mental illness.'' While that profile is frequently correct, says Ms. Wassell, who regularly obtains housing for homeless women, it now includes formerly affluent women who simply lack skills and resources for coping with life on their own.

According to Alexander, reasons for homelessness cross socioeconomic boundaries. She says women find themselves homeless after experiencing a variety of devastating losses, one after the other, with little time to recuperate, until ``their personal resources have been whittled away.'' Sometimes, she says, women become homeless as a result of rejection by their families.

``I've heard horror stories from women who, after divorce or separation, needed special professional care, and when they got it, were rejected at home, told by their families that their recovery was hopeless. I've seen teenagers who were embarrassed and angry with their mothers. It's hard to live with a mother or a depressed person who can't fulfill her responsibilities. But a child's rejection is devastating to these women,'' she says.

Sandra Jones-Hansen, assistant director of women's programs at the Pine Street Inn, a Boston shelter for the homeless, sees women from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds after they've left abusive relationships or after they've been abandoned. When the man leaves, they fall apart, they end up homeless, she explains.

``You'll hear women say, `I don't know how I came to this,''' Ms. Wassell says. ``Many women have been dependent, in a traditional marriage all of their adult lives. Many have never held a job outside the home. When they're separated or divorced, without a family or support network, they may make unwise decisions, like dropping health insurance. Suddenly there's a medical emergency, or the landlord says he's selling the building; they think they must move out immediately, not knowing there are resources available to help them.

The stories of three women are typical.

Betty Blackburn-Simpson studied speech and debate at the University of Nebraska. At 19, she left school to marry, and remained married for 29 years. Now in her late 60s and the mother of four grown children, she is dressed in a worn cashmere sweater and tweed skirt, and might easily pass for a college English professor. She and her husband owned and operated an imported automobile business, lived in a big suburban house, had plenty of money, and enjoyed all the luxuries, she recalls.

``I wasn't part of the feminist movement,'' she says. ``I was very dependent on my husband and mother-in-law.'' Although her marriage was happy during business hours, ``at home,'' she says, ``I was the traditional housewife, terribly dependent on him. I walked through the door and once again and forever I was the daughter-in-law and submissive wife. I had inner strength, but it took years to discover it.''

After her husband's death, doctors prescribed tranquilizers to help her overcome an alcohol and depression problem, which subsequently got worse. When she applied for Social Security benefits, she was told her husband had never made the payments, a task she had entrusted to him.

Eventually she ended up homeless, in a rooming house, drifting. But three years ago she decided that ``one way or another, I had to come to terms with myself; I was going to make it on my own.'' As a result of Wassell's help, she now holds a part-time job she enjoys. Her home is a bed/sitting room arrangement in a Back Bay home. Currently she's polishing several pieces of fiction and working on a book about victimization.

``Shelters are scary places,'' Wassell explains. ``If we knew [about] shelters, we'd understand why many women choose the streets instead. But women don't belong on the streets,'' she adds, ``and it's worse if they're elderly and fragile. There's a lot of violence against them. It's a measure of a society how well we take care of those who can't take care of themselves. We're developing an entire homeless industry, and it shouldn't be necessary.''

JoAnne (who asked that her last name not be used) left nursing school to marry at the age of 19. For years she lived in a suburban neighborhood south of Boston with her electrical technician husband. There was a tidy back yard, a swimming pool, and two cars in the driveway. On the surface, things looked fine.

``But I was very dependent on my husband,'' she says. Five pregnancies and several personal losses, including the death of her 22-year-old brother, left her clinically depressed, unable to function as a mother and homemaker.

``Depression eventually ruined my marriage,'' she says. After her divorce, depression increased with the abuse of alcohol and medication. When she finally ended up on the street in her 40s, she became the victim of violence, venereal disease, and rape. Eventually, JoAnne found her way to Wassell and the support that enabled her to turn her life around. Today she is a licensed practical nurse working with the elderly.

Patricia (who also asked that her last name not be used) graduated in 1946 from a prestigious women's college. After a series of personal losses she was too depressed, she says, to reach out for help. After being evicted, she found herself on the street with only the clothes on her back. For two years she slept in alleys, bushes, and, in winter, in the basements of buildings, until frostbite forced her to seek help at Boston City Hospital, where she received medical treatment and therapy.

With assistance and moral support, she lives now in an apartment of her own in Boston's South End and volunteers at the shelters where she once stayed - ``my way of paying back what I received,'' she says.

While these women's stories are representative of many others on the streets and in shelters, alcohol and depression are frequently, but not always, part of the homeless equation. Wassell says, ``The reasons are many and varied.''

Ann Maguire, executive director of Boston's Emergency Shelter Commission, says that educated middle-class women have joined the ranks of the homeless, but adds that to her knowledge, ``nobody's ever done a survey to discover how many homeless women, including middle-aged and elderly, are on the streets and in shelters for these reasons.''

According to the Urban Institute, however, a 1987 survey indicates that of 550,000 homeless people, 18 percent were single women, half of them with children. More than 50 percent of these women were educated to 12th grade or beyond.

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