Homeless women at Pa. shelter mired in poverty Medical problems, drug abuse, abusive relationships take toll


PHILADELPHIA - Outside the tidy brick building that rescues them from homelessness, the three women tend their flower and vegetable gardens.

Their pasts are as messy as the soil they churn.

But at the Sarah Allen Single Room Occupancy Residency, a women's shelter in West Philadelphia, it is time to rebuild their lives.

Two of them have clawed their way out of the drug world; the third is learning to cope with disabling medical problems. Now these single women stand at the door to independence, but there is no key.

They have done the things the poor are told to do - pull themselves up by their bootstraps - but they will remain trapped in poverty without help in getting permanent housing.

They want to work, and do, but they say they need subsidized, affordable housing to move out on their own or to be reunited with their children.

Although Sarah Allen offers residents dormitory-style housing, the federal government considers it permanent housing. So federal officials won't transfer the women's government housing subsidies to independent housing.

At a time when the debate over welfare reform often churns up resentment toward the poor, these women are asking for a little help.

"You can't cut off someone's legs and tell them to walk down the street," said Yvette Shelton, who has lived since last November at the Sarah Allen shelter. "You have to give some kind of support, some crutches. Don't give them everything, but give them something to walk with."

Mother from afar

One recent afternoon, Yvette Shelton stepped off the bus in North Philadelphia. Her 16-year-old twins, Shelli and Sean, grew up on this block, dotted with boarded houses. The teen-agers live here in separate homes with two women who have cared for them the last three years or so. Shelton talks to them every day on the phone. At least twice a week she visits them.

Sarah Allen is for single women, so Shelton can't live there with her children. Her public assistance monthly check of $204 was cut off in August. She has less than $10 left. Now 50, Shelton struggles to be a mom from afar.

Raised by her grandmother because her mother was sick and her father was in the service, Shelton dropped out of school in the 11th grade. Over the years, she worked as a housekeeper, cafeteria worker, nurse's aide, barmaid. At 33, she became pregnant with the twins, and a year after they were born, she went on welfare. They lived in public housing, where she sank into cocaine use about four years ago.

In late 1994, she was beaten and stabbed by a man she thought was going to buy. She ended up in the hospital, and then at Stop and Recover, a recovery program in North Philadelphia. She's been clean for more than two years.

Daughter proud of her

She works 28 hours a week as a door clerk at the shelter and a senior citizen center. Paid just over $5 an hour, she can't afford housing. She is searching for full-time work but so far has had no luck.

Her daughter is proud of her and relieved she's drug-free. "I want a home, and I want to be back with my mom," Shelli said.

Shelton says, "I need my children back. I know I can't make up for the mistakes I made. I know I've hurt them. But these children are all I have. They are the only thing that's important to me.

Shelton and two other women - Anna Calorio and Georgeanna Freeman - have lived at Sarah Allen since it opened in 1988.

The residents range in age from 19 to 80. All are subsidized through Section 8 housing, and the women pay 30 percent of their income to live at the shelter. If they have no income, they still have to pay $25 a month. Rasheeda Hyman, the shelter's services coordinator, does not oppose welfare reform.

"Welfare shouldn't be a way of life," said Hyman, 45. "It should be a hand up for a period of time. But it is morally wrong to take a system away that's been in place for years without offering something in its place."

Everyone at Sarah Allen calls Hyman their inspiration and the shelter's anchor, even if she delivers hard truths.

"No one," she tells them, "can do this but you."

Once homeless herself, Hyman fled an abusive, alcoholic husband and wound up at a Lancaster, Pa., shelter with her four children. She became house manager there before remarrying and moving to Philadelphia.

The Sarah Allen shelter, owned and run by Friends Rehabilitation Program, a Quaker group, has 23 rooms. Residents share two kitchens and six bathrooms. Curfew is at 10 p.m.

Of the 23 women at the shelter, seven are recovering addicts. Most are mothers.

When women have drug relapses, Hyman doesn't have to evict them. They voluntarily leave because they feel uncomfortable at a place where women are trying to heal themselves.

Hyman asks that the women get a job, go to school, volunteer or work at the shelter.

Shelton, Calorio and Freeman do more.

With a local company providing plans and plants, they made colorful flower beds and a rich vegetable garden.

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