Last spring, on her way home from getting formula and milk from a federally funded food program, Marcia was injured in a car accident. She took a medical leave from her managerial job at a fast-food franchise. After a painful convalescence, she says, she was asked not to return to work. Soon, her entire network of support fell apart. Marcia and her two sons found themselves with no one to help and no place to go.
For Marcia, 23, who was a star athlete and bright student at Walbrook High School, being homeless was a rude surprise.
"I never would think I would be in this predicament," she says at My Sister's Place as she cuddles her infant son. Her 3-year-old wends his way around the shelter, saying "excuse me" when he cuts in front of a guest. Even if she could leave them with relatives, she wouldn't. "I want my children to be with me . . . they get me through this tough time," she says.
Marcia looks ahead. "Once I get housing I want to go to cosmetology school and get my own beauty salon, either that or work in one." It's all about survival, she says.
"I don't know what I would do without My Sister's Place," she adds. "I'd probably be walking up and down the street doing something I'm not supposed to do."
"I don't judge, I know how it feels to be on the street with nobody to care," says Charlene Day, a guest advocate at My Sister's Place. "When I meet a new woman and child, I always put myself in their place. . . . You can just see the pain."
Sometimes "women are homeless in part because of a man," she says. Sometimes, "they're evicted because the man is on drugs and wanted a fix before rent is paid. . . . One woman has an 8-month-old baby and she's five months pregnant. The father left, she was evicted, he took the money and never came back. She's 21 years old, and she doesn't look like she's angry. It looks like just another crisis."
When Charlene was 16, she became pregnant. "I had to make my mind up and finish school. I was determined to find a job and get off social services." Coming from a close-knit family of 14, Charlene had the support she needed to prevail.
"In times of trouble, you need somebody to help you. If not, you'll slip right off the earth."
Karen Cassidy, in her 20s, sits at My Sister's Place, shaking off the morning's chill. Her ill-fitting jacket, split at the seams, bulges around her.
She hasn't seen her husband in over a week; she left him.
"I got tired of the begging and the bumming and the family butting in. . . . "
She could have gone to Brown's Memorial Baptist Church on West Belvedere Avenue or to one of the handful of homeless shelters for women in Baltimore, but she stayed outside.
Very early in the morning, Karen says, she allowed a stranger to take her to a motel room, but there was a misunderstanding. All she wanted was a warm place to stay. He wanted a sexual favor.
They checked out of the motel.
"He told me if I keep jumping in people's cars, one day someone would hurt me. He did tell me that and gave me money. That was nice of him. I knew he didn't have to do it. Some men are just like animals. They just want to have sex with you and that's it," Karen says.
With the $5 the man gave her, she bought potato chips, soda and cigarettes, " 'cause I didn't have nothing."
It is pouring at the annual picnic for My Sister's Place at Gunpowder Falls State Park. And somehow, the hot dogs and hamburgers earmarked for the feast accidentally were cooked and consumed at Our Daily Bread, the soup kitchen operated by Catholic Charities. Someone has to -- to the store to buy more supplies.
Still, getting away from the city has put everyone in a light-hearted mood. They are away from the daily pressure of sharing the shelter's one large sitting room with many women.
When the rain stops, a group of women gleefully wade into the river and swim among frolicking children. The staff members grill the burgers and hot dogs, set out the meal and serve the guests, before they, too, sit down to eat. After lunch, the women watch a baby crab that someone has scooped up from the beach.
At the picnic, Kim McKinney, a small, magnetic woman, strikes a pose for a photographer, showing off well-muscled arms. "Come on, Miss Hollywood," someone teases.
It took Kim only five months to become addicted to cocaine.
"I was gone, totally," says the 25-year-old former bank clerk, adding that she supported her habit with prostitution.
Last Christmas Eve, she found My Sister's Place. There, "You don't feel like you're in a shelter," she says.
Kim does a little clerical work here and there. But there are "stops and starts, stops and starts" in the effort to kick her habit. "Drugs is a disease of feelings. When things go wrong, instead of learning how to deal with it . . . "
She leaves the sentence unfinished.
"I'm scared I'm going to die. I'm kind of stuck now, just don't know which way to go," Kim says. "I like to think I'm strong. I thought I would have broken down."