As a chef, Josh Birdsall launched his career making high-quality food for discerning patrons. He learned to match flavors at Craigie Street Bistro, an award-winning restaurant in Cambridge. He prepared fancy meals at a Whole Foods in Dedham. So when he took over the kitchen at the Women’s Lunch Place, a Back Bay shelter that serves lunch and dinner to homeless and vulnerable women, he was determined to apply the same principles.
The food would be nutritious, but also flavorful. It would look good, presented artfully on plates. And the kitchen he designed, as part of a massive renovation, would use Whole Foods as a model: a self-serve coffee bar with real milk instead of powdered; a prep space with no walls, so the women can see what they’ll be eating. It matches the ethos of the shelter as a whole, where the dining hall is bright and airy, the tables are always adorned with fresh flowers, and the motto is “Dignity is Everything.”
Dignity is a tricky thing to talk about when it comes to taking help, whether from private donations or the government. There is a notion — dating back to Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens” and continuing through Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” — that poverty has become a proud culture in itself, preferable to work, and that aid creates dependence.
And it’s true that, over time, some government programs have offered perverse incentives to keep people on long-term assistance. But should it follow that assistance is, as Romney suggested, its own form of luxury? Does aid always equal entitlement?
The Women’s Lunch Place serves a population of extreme need. Its location, in the basement of a church on Newbury Street, underscores the highs and lows of our society: People stroll by in stylish clothes, drive past in fancy cars, as women descend the church steps for basic meals.
Typically, 150 to 250 women — known, in the shelter’s parlance, as “guests” — eat there every day. Roughly 40 percent of them are homeless. The rest live in transitional or low-income housing. A large portion struggle with mental illness and substance abuse. The shelter also offers them showers, beds for naps, washing machines and dryers, and an advocacy service that helps them take advantage of public housing, health care, and other assistance.
For its operations, the shelter gets 99 percent of its funding from private and corporate donations. But in an economic downturn, donations fall, and the shelter’s needs are rising. The Women’s Lunch Place served more than twice as many meals in July 2012 as it did in July 2011. For the newest guests, seeking help is especially hard; executive director Sharon Reilly said women sometimes call to ask if they can speak to an advocate over the phone, rather than coming in person.
“Even women who have been coming here for a number of years still struggle with asking for the help that they need,” she said.
And yet some do keep coming, using the shelter’s services for years. At the Women’s Lunch Place last week, I talked to Natividad Torres, 64, who said she has been coming since at least 2001, when she was homeless and struggling with high blood pressure. With advocacy help and government aid, she got a small apartment in Dorchester. But she still visits the Women’s Lunch Place nearly every day, for balanced meals and a touch of society.
“I come here because I’m by myself in my home,” she said. “So I don’t want to stay in the house just thinking about problems.”
I also talked to a woman who didn’t want to give her name, but spun a long and complicated story about her road to homelessness: a hard-to-diagnose medical condition; a good job lost; a sprawling conflict with small-town landlords; an unstable state of physical, mental, and emotional health. She said she prefers to sleep in a shelter, surrounded by other women.
“In my situation, if I got an apartment, I would not sleep,” she told me. “I would be on my own and I would feel vulnerable.”
Talking to these women for a few minutes at a time, it’s hard to know the full extent of their illnesses, the effects of past traumas, their prospects for self-sufficiency. I e-mailed Reilly to ask her about the public critiques of long-term dependency, the question of whether a woman with an apartment deserves years worth of free meals, whether conferring aid in such a pleasant setting makes the aid somehow attractive, in itself.
Her answer would, in certain circles, be anathema.
“I think that one of the strengths of America,” she wrote back, “is that we are a culture of dependency . . . there is this web of support that each of us needs even as we tell ourselves that we are pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps unaided by anyone.”
Some of us have family and friends to keep us afloat, she said. Some of us don’t. “The current thinking,” she wrote, “is that people need services and support in addition to a roof over their heads to ensure they don’t become homeless again.” Good food, company, a clean place to sit and talk, “is a piece of an elaborate web they have to weave and reweave everyday to keep themselves fed, sheltered, and safe.”
And so the shelter takes them at their word, she said, feeding them beautiful food every day. No questions asked.