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On the Job

Providing help, dignity to homeless women

Deborah Conway gathered clothing for a new guest at Rosie’s Place, a shelter for women.

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

Deborah Conway gathered clothing for a new guest at Rosie’s Place, a shelter for women.

It’s called the “shelter shuffle,” the unstable life of the chronically homeless as they move from one shelter to another seeking respite from the streets.

Homelessness leaves people — especially women — vulnerable to violence, health risks, and emotional despair, said Deborah Conway, a longtime worker at Rosie's Place, a Boston shelter for poor, homeless, and abused women.

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“If we are just able put a roof over their head, provide clothing, and a warm meal,” said Conway, 48, “this is a huge step toward giving them dignity as a human being.”

You’ve been with Rosie's Place for 14 years. What changes have you seen?

I never imagined I’d see this many single, homeless women. Many are 45 to 55. There’s a rise in young women. Many are mentally ill.

With many women fighting addiction or under the care of the Department of Mental Health, how do you find ways for everyone to peacefully coexist?

Sometimes, the solution is as simple as providing ear plugs if another woman snores. And with many disputes, I tell them, “the majority rules.”

Why does Rosie's Place provide clothing if women need it?

Feeling good about oneself is one of the first steps toward making positive changes. Some women come here with virtually nothing.

Another of your roles is creating a homelike environment to ensure women feel comfortable and safe. How do you do this?

I tell them, “This is your home; keep it clean and don’t mess it up.” It’s all part of respecting dignity.

You were once homeless yourself. How does that help you understand what others go through?

I was pregnant and went to live with my boyfriend’s family. They didn’t want me. I moved around to different places. I sometimes wondered, ”Where am I going to sleep tonight?” Then after the baby was born, I had an infant and still no home. Finally, I was able to get an apartment with my now-husband.

Have you had encounters that stuck with you?

I’ve developed a close relationship with a woman named Linda, who was comfortable in her homelessness. I would gently bring up the idea of applying for housing. She recently got her own apartment. That’s very gratifying.

How have you seen attitudes toward the homeless change?

Many people are sympathetic to homeless women if they feel it’s not their fault — they’re fleeing domestic abuse or have lost a job. But if a woman has mental health or drug issues, there can sometimes be a lot of judgment. I never assume I know what has happened in a person’s life. Homelessness doesn’t discriminate.

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at
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