Harnessing Hope


“Okay ladies! Here we go, it’s that time.”

“Ohhhhh maaaaaaaan! Again? Alright, alright.”

Ladies who’ve made themselves at home on benches throughout our back patio space get up slowly, the way my grandmother did, grunting and groggy from relaxation. Their arms bend slower than usual, they are weary from the life that ages them, life outside.

Tracy scrambles to pack her things up, really she is just making a mess. We go through this every day.

“Tracy, you gotta be kidding me. You know what time we close, what are you doing?” I laugh to lighten the mood but inside I am impatient and frustrated. It’s true every day she is the last one to leave but the first one I tell to grab her stuff. Tracy struggles with alcohol and other drugs, she lives with mental illness.

B is talking to herself in sentences that make no sense to me but she bops her head back and forth, waves her hand about, pulls her pants up over her behind and tries to pack her things. Today a co-worker notices that her belly is a little bigger than usual. She seems to be pregnant, she is in the grips of addiction, she lives with mental illness and now she seems to be pregnant. Our hearts break as we know that the way this happened was likely traumatic.

“Nah girl, that’s my bike.” Ashley giggles, she knows her bike should not be where she stowed it, we don’t have the space for it but she doesn’t have the money to buy a lock.

“Ashley, you break these rules all the time and I can’t help but smile at you, what’s up with that?”

“It’s because I’m so cute and you love me. “ She’s right.

R walks out with her 10 month old baby, the light of my day. “Okay, but wait, Shannon, before I go can you tell me if the shelter will let me other kids in too?”

I ask her to come see me tomorrow for more of a talk. I take her son, into my arms and squeeze him tight, we scream little screams together, he steals my glasses off of my face and I tell him he’s just the best and I love him.

Out the back gate they all go. 10 months old to 50+, they wander into the afternoon which turns into the dark and lonely night.

I hope with all my might that they come back tomorrow.

This is often the hardest part of our work at Maryhouse, harnessing hope when it seems often like there just isn’t enough to go around.

“I’ve never walked so fast, I’m so glad you’re still here.”

I opened the door, after hours, frustrated that someone was pounding feverishly.

She was panting and sweating. She was out of breath as she was smiling.

I saw her then I saw a baby. His skin so beautiful and clean, his demeanor so calm. I looked up and she said, “I’ve never walked so fast, I’m glad you’re here.”

I regretted my frustration immediately and wept the happiest tears while I took the baby from her arms. I remember him in her belly, from the time she shared with me that she had made him with a man she didn’t want to be with. Together we discussed her options when there was really only ever one; to have him and to love him.

She lived outside at night and in our lounge during the day. We counted the days and weeks and months until she hit month seven of nurturing him in her body. For homeless women month seven means eligibility for a maternity home. Everyday I called to ask if a bed was open and for three weeks, “We’re full.” On a Thursday morning the worker on the other line told me a couch was open and She could have it until a bed opened up. I agreed to send her via taxi by 11 am, “I promise, she will be there.”

Off I ran to find her eating breakfast in our dining room, “A couch is ready for you, let’s pack!”

Together we sorted her things and waited for a cab. I loaded her things and hugged her, I wished her well and knew I may never see her again.


Sweaty and panting she handed me her baby.

This is what we do at Maryhouse. We love and we listen and sometimes we have the privilege of seeing the outcome.



“Why won’t she give me her baby?”


My walk past the water cooler in the Maryhouse lobby happens often as the door right next to the cooler leads me to the coffee. Today was like any other day, the lobby was full which means babies laughing or crying, women shouting or talking. The phone was ringing mail was being checked and I needed more coffee.

As I walked past the cooler I saw one of my favorite guests standing right next to it, looking forward, her head was tilted and she was smiling, her one front tooth stuck out under her upper lip. She is wearing a beanie, a very dirty dress and construction boots.

“Hi Rachel, how are you?”

“Why won’t she give me her baby?”

This was a surprising response and I needed more coffee so I wasn’t thinking about Rachel’s history when I said, “Well, because that baby is hers. She loves her baby and would miss her if she were gone. You wouldn’t want to give up your baby would you?”

Rachel was looking at the baby adoringly until I asked that question. It’s likely the question that reminded her that she once had children but the severity of her mental health symptoms prevented her from caring for them so, they were taken. She didn’t want to give up her babies, but she did.

“I had babies, they graduated high school now. Maybe college. They are nice. I had babies…”

She then looked at the mother holding her infant.

“Can I have your baby? Can I just hold your baby?”

The mother looked at her, shook her head no and Rachel looked back at me.

“I’m sorry, Rachel.”

Rachel then walked off, garbage bag over her shoulder, dirty and sad.

This is not the usual water cooler talk. It’s not the kind of casual conversation most people are used to however, here at Maryhouse, where we strive to make every moment safe and sacred, people share the deepest longings of their hearts. Women lament the loss of their children, their struggles with addiction. Women cry out about being assaulted. Women struggle, honestly and hope for a better future. Water cooler talk at Maryhouse is startling and it’s real.

“I’m here! Thank you!”

Today was my first day as Director at Maryhouse. I woke up feeling the same as any other day, tired because I dislike mornings and fiercely craving a pot of coffee. When I arrived on campus I was greeted by three of our very vulnerable guests, one right after the other; I’d like to say that I was happy to see them but the truth is I thought, “Oh this means today is going to be interesting.” Natasha, a guest I love deeply but can no longer serve as a result of the severity of her illness and addiction was walking barefoot, tip toeing around rocks, hands in fists held tightly to her chest. She was winking, as she often does and mumbling to herself. Whitney, a tall woman suffering with severe mental health symptoms was standing by the door cursing, “Good Morning, Whitney.” Her response was all expletives, wishing my demise. I am convinced that the Whitney deep inside doesn’t actually want me off this planet, but some days it’s hard to tell. Stephanie was on all fours looking into a dryer vent, growling at a staff person trying to help her. This is not a bizarre scenario at Maryhouse, it’s normal. Not the way it’s supposed to be but it is normal.

I continued with the thought that today was going to be hard and sent good vibes toward the kitchen hoping there was fresh coffee so that I could face the day humbly, openly, honestly and enthusiastically.

Coffee in hand I continued the morning at my desk relatively incident free with small moments of congratulations or comment about today being a notable day for me. I put out mini fires and answered emails but I still sat in this feeling that the day was going to be “interesting.”

My feelings made me prepare for the worst but what happened instead was this:

Linda, the sweetest 50-something year old woman who suffers from auditory hallucinations regularly was welcomed back to Maryhouse after having to take a break for behavioral issues. Linda can often be found on our back patio screaming at the top of her lungs about the children she lost in a traumatic incident that she cannot articulate. She yells loudly and aggressively at the voices that taunt her, she can’t help it. Linda suffers. Linda suffers every day at nearly every moment and she does so outside, alone and cold.


She walked in the doors, she smiled and said, “Heeeeeey girl! I’m here! Thank you!” As she thanked me she pointed in my direction and I felt what she must have, love and appreciation.

Maryhouse is a home during the day to women and children who are forced to endure the traumatic experiences of being homeless and for that reason every day is indeed interesting. How dare I think it would be anything but beautifully so. It was. It was because of Linda and all the other women like her who find rest in our doors. I’m excited for tomorrow.

All the best,