Kind word, a cup of coffee, a portal to safety, a hand up from despair


November 29, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro

Gretchen has her own place now, but dreams about the days when she wandered the streets 18 hours at a stretch in a shroud of manic-depressive illness.

Virginia's life has been a cycle of violent relationships, angry departures and ill health. "You name it, baby," she says, "I've been through it."

This past spring, Marcia was in a car wreck, became unemployed and was left without a home for herself and her two young sons.

ITALICS After a night on the street, away from a controlling

husband, Karen seems shellshocked. Her piercing blue eyes burn with a life of horror.

Kim, quick-witted and athletic, can't kick her drug habit and is afraid she will die.

It has been 10 years since My Sister's Place opened its doors in downtown Baltimore.

Established in 1982 by Catholic Charities in a former art gallery forged out of two rowhouses on West Mulberry Street, the shelter provides a safe place for Gretchen, Virginia, Marcia, Karen, Kim and others who have nowhere else to go during the day.

Here are women who have been battered and abused. Some have been raped. Here are mentally ill women without medication and psychiatric care, and, increasingly, women ravaged by acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Women whipped by substance abuse and women evicted from their homes. Women released from jail. Homeless women, often pregnant, arrive with young children. Here are women who have been laid off from jobs, who don't meet the criteria for public assistance. Physically disabled women and women who cannot read. And there are women of means, who ache with loneliness and have nowhere else to go.

At My Sister's Place, they are all welcome guests, 365 days a year.

Gretchen Cadle, 51, knows what the worst can be, and now she is carefully trying on a life made deliberately simple and manageable, thanks in large part to My Sister's Place.

For 20 years she was a secretary and a bookkeeper; she's now on permanent disability. She has a history of mental illness, she says, and after a series of nervous breakdowns, she no longer had the strength to make another comeback.

She lost her job and her home on the Eastern Shore, she says, and then she lost two years of her life, aimlessly living in California and New Orleans. Eventually, she drifted to Baltimore and to Washington, where she would walk for 18 hours at a time, afraid to stop and sleep on a bench. And, "because of the lack of sleep and the mental confusion, I couldn't find a soup kitchen more than once every other day," she says.

Treading from landmark to landmark in Washington, Gretchen carried a child's paint set. Dabbing her brush in a soda cap of water, she painted at Washington's Botanical Gardens. Her hobby moored her to a more hopeful future. One of Gretchen's more recent pieces, created with the encouragement of art therapist Patti Prugh at My Sister's Place, is a peaceful blue-green scene of water and land, that communicates a new sense of serenity.

My Sister's Place is "like a beacon of light to me," says Gretchen, who now has a Baltimore apartment. It has been "a slow dawning; I became more friendly over the passage of time. Familiarity bred a strong feeling of affection," she says. "The personnel is excellent . . . they offer you friendship very readily. I have a fear of being patronized. There's never the slightest hint of that here."

By word-of-mouth, about 1,000 women find their way annually to My Sister's Place. Some days, as many as 100 arrive to make a phone call, rest, have laundry done on the second floor, or pick up their mail and public assistance checks. In this urban refuge, painted a gentle pink, decorated with guests' artwork and an occasional plant, some just sit for a while to be away from the streets' constant assault on their humanity.

My Sister's Place opened as a drop-in center where guests could get a cup of coffee and take a shower. Today, operating on a $200,000 budget from mostly private donations, it offers guests access to information about housing, medical care, employment and support services. Guest advocates -- a friendlier term than caseworker -- and volunteers are available to help each woman regain as much self-esteem and control over her life as she can handle. And there are creative programs, such as a knitting project. Set up by volunteer Kathleen Harmeyer as a Lenten project, the activity helps guests sort out what's going on in their lives while making a garment that will keep them warm in winter.

It is a ministry of love, respect and acceptance. My Sister's Place is "very different than most helping agencies. It is a watching and waiting kind of thing," says Mary Ellen Vanni, shelter director for the past five years. Gaining the trust of women accustomed to cruelty can take months. Success is measured in tiny increments as guests learn to identify and seek what they need to improve their lives.

At first, says Mary Ellen, what they need simply may be "a pair of shoes and socks to be OK on the street."

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