When one thinks about homelessness, it's unlikely that the terms "network" or "mentoring" come to mind. To women who are homeless, though, banding together and creating communities is a matter of instinct and survival. They "network" on a daily basis.
The Church of Mary Magdalene has been a community of support for homeless women in downtown Seattle since 1991. Founded by Presbyterian minister and social worker Jean Kim, the ecumenical church began as a cluster of women who needed a safe and nurturing environment to explore their spirituality. Now the church is community to 850 women, providing not only a weekly worship service but a gathering place—a living room of sorts—for women to connect with one another and muster strength for the next day.
Weekdays, the church serves as a day shelter called Mary's Place. Here, amidst the cozy couches and overstuffed chairs that encircle the basement room, women have access to meals, laundry and shower facilities, community services, and learning opportunities. Several times a week, area volunteers lead workshops. Topics vary wildly. Women can learn tae bo in the morning and the ins and outs of transitional housing applications in the afternoon one day; on another the focus might be journal writing and drug treatment.
The activities and the quiet atmosphere of Mary's Place sets it apart from other day shelters, according to Sephora, a soft-spoken woman with slicked-back hair and expressive eyes, who carefully brushes shimmery pink polish on long fingernails. "This is a place of peace for us," she says. "Women in general need to take time out for ourselves, to relax and fill back up before we go out into the world again."
For Sephora, homeless since 1997 and now living with her daughter in a permanent night shelter, that renewal comes from simply being with other women. "We are a community of survivors here," she says. "In the quiet moments and while talking with each other we come to know who we are and what we want to do with our lives."
Some of the women decide to go back to school or learn new job skills. Others choose to get help with drug or alcohol addictions, or to reconnect with lost family. Regardless of the size of the transformational step, Sephora says the women form a community that provides needed strength: "We help each other by giving positive support to one another or simply in asking, ‘How can I make your life easier for you today?'"
Making life easier often means tapping into the tremendous network these women have created among themselves. Sometimes networking is a matter of life and death, the difference between a night on the street or a night in a warm shelter.
Rev. Pat Simpson, pastor of the Church of Mary Magdalene, has seen many ways in which the women care for one another. "The women have insider information about how the systems around town work," Simpson says. "Sometimes they can get a woman into a bed at a shelter before I can finish making all the necessary phone calls." As in business, sometimes who you know is key. "The women take each other under the wing, particularly the really young ones and the elderly, and teach them the back door into things," says Simpson.
An outsider to the Church of Mary Magdalene may be hard pressed to notice significant transformational moments among the women. The changes often occur on the inside first, in re-vamping old belief systems, for instance, or beginning to recognize self-worth. "All day long, these women are told that they are non-persons. They are refused service at restaurants; they are ignored in stores. They're sleeping on basement floors. Those are strong messages," says Simpson. "We do all we can to counter those experiences. One way is by encouraging every woman to participate and contribute to the program with whatever gifts she brings." Those gifts may be in leading a wisdom circle or teaching women to crochet, in cooking lunch or in keeping the bathrooms clean.
"What touches me is to see these women caring for each other—women who, in the world's eyes, have no resources—but they are more than willing to share what they do have," says Simpson. "They share food, clothes, advice, support. It's really a beautiful thing. It gives me hope."
Church of Mary Magdalene
Rev. Pat Simpson
PO Box 359
Seattle, WA 98111
Tricia Schug is a Seattle-area writer and founder of Fire Horse Writing & Design, a firm specializing in the writing and design of promotional materials for business.