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November 2010 Issue

A Place to Call Home

Peace: safe and permanent housing for women who were homeless or survivors of domestic violence.
Heavenly Alpha Centauri lives at the Verona Hotel, a United Methodist Women-supported facility that provides safe and permanent housing in San Francisco for women who were homeless or survivors of domestic violence. Paul Jeffrey

By Paul Jeffrey

Mary Elizabeth Inn offers once homeless women in San Francisco safety, support and the stability of house keys.

When Margaret McNulty was homeless in San Francisco, she would often walk the streets or ride the buses all night long. There were shelters available, but she considered them scary places. She felt safer if she kept moving through the night, on her own. In the daytime, she'd look for a place to sleep.

"I'd sleep in the park or on the buses. There are some bushes along one side of City Hall that are pretty plush, at least until they kick you out," said Ms. McNulty, 48, who is known to her friends as Margo Baby. "After that it's the 24-hour donut shops, though at times I'd just walk around crying."

After sleeping for a while on friends' floors and "jumping SROs" — staying in a series of cheap single-room occupancy hotels where she'd pay a week's rent and stay until she was kicked out — Ms. McNulty tried spending the night in a small storage unit where she kept her belongings. "That worked for two days, and then I got caught," she said. "They called the cops, and I was arrested. That was hard, but it led to me getting help."

With assistance from the city's homeless outreach team, Ms. McNulty got a room in a rundown hotel for several months, and dental and psychiatric care. Finally, the city team got her a room in the Mary Elizabeth Inn, a United Methodist Women national mission institution in San Francisco.

"It was a gift and a blessing for me to come here," Ms. McNulty said. "I took pictures and sent them to my mom back East. It's more than just a place to live. They have case management, movie nights, board games on Sunday, a computer lab and classes, individual tutoring, yoga, self-esteem workshops, breakfast and dinner in the dining room. This place has been a salvation for me."

Ms. McNulty said finding permanent housing has given her a chance to have a future.

"I went from being the baby girl of a large family to being a cheerleader at Penn State and then ended up marrying the wrong guy and having two kids," Ms. McNutly said. "Throughout it all, I never had to take care of myself, because I was always taken care of. I never really learned the tools to take care of myself. It's not that I didn't want to, I just didn't know how."

Having a safe and secure place to live has given Ms. McNulty a chance to re-launch her career as an entertainer. She once trained as a stand-up comic. "I'm trying to get up the nerve to go back to Union Square," she said. "I took my harmonica and tap shoes there once, and it was the most humiliating thing for me. I was performing and people were just walking by. Not even a dime! My song went rapidly downhill. But now I've been practicing.

"I've gone from having no future to finding a haven where I've turned my life totally around. I can't wait to see what happens next."

The first key in years

The Mary Elizabeth Inn was built in 1914 by Lizzie Glide, a Methodist philanthropist wanting to provide affordable housing for women coming to the city in search of schooling or employment or just fleeing from abusive families. She named the facility after her two daughters and donated the building to the Methodist Church. The deed has long been held by United Methodist Women's national administrative body, the Women's Division, which provides property insurance, and leadership training for the staff and board of directors.

Almost a century later, single women still migrate to the city. Diane Love, property manager for the Mary Elizabeth Inn, said the city can be a tough environment in which to survive when life takes some turns and all of a sudden you're homeless.

"Although there are shelters for homeless women, some women don't want to stay there because they might get robbed. So a woman might go to San Francisco General [Hospital] and sit in the waiting room, befriending the guard to let her sit there all night long," Ms. Love said. "That's a terrible way to live. Men have a hard time as well, but it's harder for women to defend themselves if they have to be out all night. It's one of the worst horror movies for them to make it through the night to the safety of the next day."

Ms. Love said women are thrilled to come live in the Mary Elizabeth Inn, or the nearby Verona Hotel, which Mary Elizabeth Inn started managing in 2009. The rooms are small, but they have a little refrigerator and hot plate, a substantial change for someone who has lived on the street or in shelters. Breakfast and dinner are provided in the dining room. Women pay rent based on their income.

"They're so excited when they get here. Many have in their hand the first key they've had in years," Ms. Love said. "It doesn't matter that they don't have a bathroom of their own. They're not bothered in the least, because they have a place they can call their own. That allows them to feel like they're beginning to resolve some of their issues."

For many, the safety and security of having "a place they can call their own" encourage life changes that lead to long-term solutions where women move to their own apartment. Yet there's no rush.

"Mary Elizabeth Inn provides permanent housing to give the women a sense of belonging," Ms. Love said. "They have a place. They don't have to leave. When they're in the shelters they're temporary. This is transitional as well, but they can stay forever if they want."

Not an easy place to live

Mary Elizabeth Inn has a counseling center where homeless women find the resources they need to survive and thrive. The program partners closely with other organizations, such as La Casa de las Madres, a San Francisco group serving women survivors of domestic violence for more than three decades.

Caitlin Finnell, a case manager for La Casa, works out of an office in the Verona Hotel in the heart of San Francisco's seedy Tenderloin district, long a center for drugs, prostitution and crime. Ms. Finnell says the services provided by the Mary Elizabeth Inn and the Verona Hotel outweigh the disadvantages of the location.

"The Tenderloin is not an easy place for anyone to live," she said. "A lot of the women who live here grew up in the neighborhood. They know a lot of people, and they can easily be tempted to fall back into their old ways of life. Mary Elizabeth Inn and the Verona have a strong community. We have activities, counseling groups and individual counseling. We work hard to offer new options to the women. If we didn't do all that, if there were no supportive services, then it would be no different from any other hotel."

Community also makes a difference

"The women look out for each other," Ms. Finnell said. "It's like a family. Sometimes there are fights, but in the end the women really look out for each other and care about each other. They will come to me when they haven't seen someone in a couple of days. They know the comings and goings of the others. They're always watching out for each other, even the ones they may not get along with.

"Sometimes they'll mediate each other's conflicts. One day a woman resident was walking down the street, and her batterer came up and started hitting her. Women from the community jumped in and rescued her and got her to safety. It's a powerful community of women."

Not every resident is easy to get along with, but Ms. Finnell said other residents take those challenges in stride.

"Some of the women have mental health issues, and it's hard at times for people to understand and interact with them, but there's also a lot of tolerance," she said. "The women understand that this is housing for people who have nowhere else to go. Somebody may be off, but there's probably a good reason they're off. They've probably suffered a lot of trauma in their life. But there are really graceful ways the women here deal with that. I have a lot of respect for how the women relate to each other, even if they're not on the same page or even the same planet."

Diane Love worked in a corporate environment before coming to work for Mary Elizabeth Inn. She sees homeless people through different eyes now.

"Riding home on the bus you see people on the streets, and it's easy to be judgmental. Now I realize that bad circumstances can happen to good people, leaving them living on the streets with nothing," Ms. Love said. "A lot of people you see walking around in the daytime, dragging suitcases and backpacks behind them, may live in a shelter, but they get kicked out at 7 in the morning and have to walk the streets all day until they can go back and lay down in the evening. I don't look the same way at people I see on the streets with suitcases or sitting on a corner. They're not just homeless. They are real people struggling courageously to get by."

Denna Harvey is one of those real people. With help from La Casa, she left an abusive relationship in 2009. "I knew I was done getting hit," she said. La Casa moved her into a shelter, and after several months of counseling she moved into the Verona late in 2009. She's gone back to college and is only one semester shy of finishing her degree.

Ms. Harvey has been through horror, but with help from a few friends, she's being made whole.

"I love living in the Verona," Ms. Harvey said. "I love people. I identify with people who are broken, because I'm broken. But I'm like gold: I've been beaten, but I'm going to shine one of these days."

The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and response senior correspondent, not to mention a cool guy.

Last Updated: 03/22/2014

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