Maryhouse Welcomes, Kaylee!

I received the warmest welcome on my first day at Maryhouseand Loaves & Fishes. The entire tour of the campus (more like a university) took an entire hour! I learned so many names and received so many smiles! Some staff, not all from Maryhouse, even knew a bit about me, like my previous job was at the Sacramento LGBT Community Center, including Sister Libby.

This was beyond flattering.

At a glance, I’m absolutely amazed at the sheer volume of homeless folks are served. But where Sacramento seems to fall short with resources and housing, there’s no shortage of kindness and hospitality at Loaves and Fishes. I’m so thankful for the opportunity to join this amazing team and serve guests at Maryhouse.

 

“mail check please”

 

On most days at Maryhouse, my daily tasks consist of your usual front desk activities – answering phone calls, welcoming and informing new guests of the services we provide, maintaining the front lobby, and what most people would find to be tedious work – filing mail for approximately 600 women (correct me if that amount is incorrect). Filing that amount of mail can be overwhelming to some, but it’s when you get to be the person that hands over the mail to a guest that makes it ALL WORTH IT. 

On most days, I often here “mail check please” and without hesitation I respond “last name?”. This position has afforded me the blessing of learning each guests’ name very quickly, where I don’t even need to ask their name because with one glance or the sound of their voice, I already know who I’m digging through the files for. Today though, I dug through the files for a woman who was impatiently waiting for a very important, high priority piece of mail. It had been her third day in a row at my desk praying it would finally be in the file waiting for her. Today, there it was. With such pleasure I handed over a DMV envelope with her name on it, and said “would this be what you’ve been waiting for?” In a moments time, tears came to her eyes, she bowed her head down with such relief, covering her face with her hands to hide the joyous tears rolling down her cheeks. Caught up in the moment she could barely speak.

I want you to take a moment and reflect back to the day you turned 15, maybe 17, and on that day you knew you were about to take on the world no longer as a teenager, but as an adult because you hold your very first license.

Most days I hand over the mail, and hear the dull voices repeating “ugh bills, bills, bills” or when there is no mail to hand over its often “well, I guess no news is good news”. Caught off guard in this moment with a woman crying over a piece of mail, all I could think is “thank god, my co worker is standing next to me because I’m not sure how to react, I’ve never had someone cry when I handed them their mail.”  I learned an ID had much more power than I had ever thought before.  She stared at her ID with such joy, she was speechless.

My days at Maryhouse remind me how often an ID is needed and unfortunately, how often an ID is stolen. An ID for me at 17 meant freedom from my parents, an ID for our guests of all ages means an approved housing application, another piece to a job application completed, a way to get bus tickets, a way into a shelter, a means to claim their paycheck, proof of their legal name and birthday, to keep a car, to go to school, to receive social services, and a sense of identity. She came back the next day to apologize for her previous tears, stating “I’m so sorry, I was just so happy that ID means I can start my life again.”

BINGO glimmers

“Biiiiiiiingo! Ladies, I am here for BINGOOOOO!”

Rosemary, our dedicated volunteer, glides through the lobby singing that it’s time for the weekly BINGO game. Today, she is a whole day early so it’s a surprise to the ladies. Today they thought they’d have another day of conversing with each other, sitting or sleeping in comfort, waiting for our doors to close.

“What? It’s Thursday? We get BINGO on Thursday? Here I come.”

“I want in!”

“Wait for me!”

Our guests hurry to gather their belongings and head out to the back patio where the game takes place. Begging for the game to wait just another minute until they can reach the table.

 

Once outside, they mark their number. They talk about the week. They laugh, they lament and they just are.

“BINGO!”

These glimmers of normalcy are priceless, for all of us.

Sometimes, even the most difficult moments in this work call for a good laugh

I heard our front door swing open and I heard her voice before I even saw who it was. I smiled and said aloud to my coworkers, “Sue!”

I walked out of the office into the lobby to Sue standing in the doorway, wearing her long blue coat, her blonde hair combed to perfection, all while grinning from ear to ear. Sue was one of the first intakes I completed upon starting at Maryhouse and her genuine nature and kind heart were difficult to forget.

“Kansas! Oh, girl! Would you just look at me? How good do I look? This is what twenty pounds down looks like! Don’t I look good?”

Sue wrapped her arms around my neck and held on for a while. She kissed my forehead, pushed me back with her hands steady on my shoulders while looking at me through her crooked, gold framed reading glasses.

“You look great, Sue! Are you taking care of yourself though?”

With a mischievous grin she responded, “Absolutely! It’s called the homelessness diet. You just walk miles and miles to get to every appointment & you eat one meal a day. It does the body good; kind of like Wheaties!” Sue laughed hysterically as one hand remained on my shoulder as she doubled over in laughter.

“Sue!” I responded with laughter, “Only you could find humor in all of this!”

“Yep, it’s how we all survive around here. I’m still breathing right? And guess what?” She promptly put both hands on her hips, “Now, I even look good doing it!”

Sometimes, even the most difficult moments in this work call for a good laugh. Sue is our reminder of that.

She maintains beauty.

She can often be found darting from one end of campus to another, carrying a pot of dirt or a sickly flower that needs a little love. Most recently she hauled a giant watermelon, grown in her garden shouting, “Isn’t this cool?”

Her name is Donna. 25 years ago she was homeless and she’d say, hopeless but by what she calls a miracle, she found “Fishes and Loaves”. She walked onto the campus of Loaves and Fishes broken on the inside from emotional abuse, dirty on the outside from sleeping on the bare earth and longing for a place to call home. It was a long road for Donna, she got clean and relapsed, she refused to wear shoes, she refused help, over and over for years until the day she was ready to start taking small steps. Until the staff and volunteers earned her trust.

Donna used Maryhouse services regularly, she built relationships and she is on the journey of restoration. Five years ago, the staff who’d earned a space to listen and speak into her life, urged her to consider taking a permanent bed at Sister Nora’s Place, an on campus housing program so, she did and found it to be match. Shortly after her move in another offer was made by Sister Libby, residential gardener so, Donna went for it.

Having no experience in gardening Donna struggled until she flourished along side her plants.

Today Donna tends to each plant as if it were her child. She nurtures their grown from seed to bloom. Donna, with her presence and patience for plants, maintains beauty in a space that can often feel so chaotic. We are all so grateful for her labor of love.

“Hey now, it’s always good to be seen!”

 

“Good morning, how are you?”

“I’m blessed. Very blessed.”

More often than not this is the response from our women as they enter our back patio gate every morning. They are often pushing squeaky carts with shaky wheels, overflowing baby strollers filled with all that they own, or tattered and torn suitcases that have seen better days.

One by one I wish them good morning, trying my best to remember each and every guest’s name, looking them in the eye as they beam with excitement when they are called.

“Good morning, Kathleen. It’s good to see you.”

“Hey now, it’s always good to be seen!”

At this back gate every morning I am met with genuine smiles, with optimism that another day has come and strength that seems so effortless. But these women are coming in after long, cold, sleepless nights. It is not often that they have a night of sleep where they do not get woken up and asked to move by police officers or property owners. Or, a night in which they feel safe enough to even fall asleep at all for fear that may be physically or sexually assaulted.

Nevertheless, these women come in every morning, day after day, feeling blessed. Feeling gratitude for being seen for who they are despite experiencing nights many of us know nothing of. They are mothers, grandmothers, daughters, sisters and nieces, and homelessness does not define them.

“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.

Until…

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.

But TODAY!

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,

Shannon

Maryhouse Celebrates 30 Years!

This month, Maryhouse celebrates its 30th anniversary! Maryhouse, a daytime hospitality shelter for women at Loaves & Fishes, has served thousands of women over the years, and continues each day to provide a safe space for women and children in Sacramento.

To celebrate 30 years, we will share stories of Maryhouse each day in September: 30 days of Maryhouse Moments. We hope that these stories may help to illuminate what Maryhouse is all about, and how important this program has been in the lives of so many women these past 30 years.

Inspirational  messages such as this decorate the bathroom mirrors in Maryhouse.