Homeless women stay invisible by melting into the background


February 04, 1991|By Holly Selby

You, may have seen them: Women lingering alone over a cup of coffee in a restaurant, relaxing on a sofa in the public library, washing up in the hotel restroom.

No doubt you thought nothing of it.

But when the restaurants and libraries close, these women don't go home. They don't have homes.

They live in cars, vans, sheds, abandoned houses, perhaps storerooms in businesses where they have minimum-wage jobs. They survive because they know their way around middle-class society, know how to find hotel restrooms to bathe in and grocery-store salad bars to nibble from, according to a recently published book about homeless women, written by Baltimore native Marjorie Bard.

"Shadow Women: Homeless Women's Survival Stories" (Sheed & Ward, Kansas City, Kan., $9.95) documents stories of homeless women who survive, for the most part unnoticed, in urban and suburban surroundings. Ms. Bard said she did more than 1,000 interviews and used her findings as part of her doctoral thesis at the University of California Los Angeles.

These women are part of a growing number of women who thought their lives were safely on track but were displaced through divorce, a deceased spouse or the loss of a job, Ms. Bard said. And many of them, battered by their husbands or boyfriends, were forced to make a choice: Stay in an untenable relationship or be homeless.

Just how many women might be living in this manner is difficult to assess, Ms. Bard said in a telephone interview from Beverly Hills, Calif., where she nows lives with her mother. Estimates of the number ofhomeless come from tallies made by shelters, but the women she interviewed were too proud and too embarrassed to frequent shelters.

These women, however, are an exception among the homeless. The majority of homeless women were living near poverty level when a crisis -- loss of a job, physical or mental illness, death of a spouse -- led to them losing their homes, said local social workers.

Betty Russell, author of a soon-to-be-published book on homeless women, "Silent Sisters," said, "The women I interviewed, the women who go to shelters, lived and had lived closer to the poverty level. It was a rarity to meet women who had lived as middle class."

Still, said Mary Ellen Vanni, director of My Sister's Place, a day-time center for homeless women and children in Baltimore, "we have met people from time to time who were actually living in a car. I think they're desperate. They don't know where to begin to get themselves started [in a job]. I don't think it's surprising that this happens."

One woman periodically came to My Sister's Place to change clothes and to bathe, Ms. Vanni said. She worked in Cockeysville but couldn't afford rent so she lived in a car. Another woman, who frequents the center, leaves home to sleep in her car whenever she has a problem with a family member.

"It's very common to hear these stories," said Jacquelyn Gaines, executive director of Health Care for the Homeless, which provides medical, mental health and social services for the homeless in Baltimore.

And in the case of battered women, "What I hear is that they don't even tell their families. People say, 'Why don't they go to their families?' but they are afraid their families are somehow going to leak where they are," Ms. Gaines said.

"A lot of people say, 'Why don't they get a job?' Well, we're talking about middle or lower class American women who have lived with the secret of violence in their homes. They may have [college] degrees, but they started out being homemakers and they didn't use the B.A. so they have no or few marketable skills. They have skills, but not skills that can be marketed without experience."

Since publication of Ms. Bard's book in August -- and a subsequent article in the Los Angeles Times -- the author has been swamped with calls from homeless women. And

she has been approached by several production companies about TV and movie rights, said her publisher.

The homeless cause is important to her: Ms. Bard first stumbled upon these women in the '70s when she and her husband separated and she left her Baltimore-area home, she said. Although she had a bachelor of arts degree in social welfare, she said, as a middle-aged woman without marketable work experience, she had difficulty finding a job that would support her.

In 1975 and '76, Ms. Bard, the daughter of a California doctor and a librarian, moved from place to place living out of her car and trying to earn enough to live on as a jewelry maker, she said.

"I was looking for answers to my own questions as I traveled. I was referred to other people like me. But nobody in their right mind would believe these stories. How could it happen to me? How could it happen to them?"

For a few years, Ms. Bard lived in a Towson apartment. During this time, she began recording the stories of the women she met -- in rest rooms in downtown Baltimore hotels and department stores, in the public library and in rural areas of Maryland and Pennsylvania, she said.

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