By Cindy Atoji Keene
It’s called the “shelter shuffle” – the unstable life of the chronically homeless as they move from one place to another in a transient street life. For Deborah Conway, a longtime worker at Rosie’s Place, homelessness is also a state of vulnerability for violence, health risks, and emotional despair – especially for women. “If we are just able put a roof over their head, provide clothing, and a warm meal, this is a huge step toward giving them dignity as a human being,” said Conway, 48, who is the overnight manager at this Boston resource for poor, homeless or abused women to seek services or help. “We call it a ‘sanctuary’ for over 12,000 women who come through our doors every year, whether for just a bed to sleep in, legal advice, or safety from domestic violence.”
Q: You’ve been with Rosie’s Place for 14 years – what sort of changes have you seen in population that you serve?
A: I never imagined I’d see this many single homeless women. And they’re getting older and older– many are 45-55 with no housing. On the other side of the spectrum, there’s a rise in young girls, some whom have aged out of Department of Children and Families (DCF). Many of the women are mentally ill, maybe because of deinstitutionalization, early discharge or denial of benefits.
Q: With many women fighting addiction or, increasingly, under the care of the Department of Mental Health, how do you find ways for everyone to peacefully co-exist as overnight guests?
A: Most shelters require guests to leave each morning, while our program allows women to stay for three weeks or more if needed. Some are like long-time roommates, so conflicts are bound to arise, whether it’s keeping bedroom windows open or closed or agreeing on a television show. Sometimes the solution is as simple as providing ear plugs if another woman snores. And with many disputes, I tell them, ‘The majority rules.’
Q: Among other services, why does Rosie’s Place provide clothing if women need it?
A: Feeling good about oneself is one of the first steps toward making positive changes. Some women come here with virtually nothing, and we provide free clothing to over 400 women a month, including coats during the winter. The clothes are carefully sorted but we have almost constant shortages of size 16 and up. If we have nothing that fits, they’re given a voucher to go to Goodwill.
Q: Another one of your roles is creating a homelike environment to ensure that all the women staying at Rosie’s Place feel comfortable and safe. How do you do this?
A: I tell them, ‘This is your home; keep it clean and don’t mess it up.’ It’s all part of respecting dignity. Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you’re destitute. Women share responsibilities, whether cooking, cleaning, watering the plants, or emptying trash.
Q: You were once homeless yourself. How does that help you understand what others are going through?
A: I was pregnant and went to live with my boyfriend’s family. They didn’t want me in their house – it was too many people, so for about a year and a half, I moved around to different places. I sometimes wondered, ‘Where am I going to sleep tonight?’ Then after the baby was born, I now had an infant and still no home. Finally, I was able to able to get an apartment with my now-husband and eventually even buy my own home.
Q: Throughout the years, have you had any encounters that have stuck with you?
A: I’ve developed a close relationship with a woman named Linda, who was comfortable in her situation of homelessness. She was not on drugs; she was just someone who didn’t want to make a change. Over time I would gently bring up the idea of applying for housing. About five years ago, when she was in her late 50’s, she finally agreed to apply, and she recently got her own apartment. That’s very gratifying because I consider her a friend. I also have been working with Moira over 12 years, and am getting close to her considering to apply for food stamps.
Q: How have you seen attitudes toward the homeless change through the years?
Many people are sympathetic to homeless women if they feel it’s not their fault – if they’re fleeing domestic abuse or have lost a job. But if a woman has mental health or drug issues, there can sometimes be a lot of judgment. They don’t realize that it can just be a matter of the “cards you’re dealt.” I never assume I know what has happened in a person’s life. Homelessness doesn’t discriminate.