Sharon Reilly, the executive director of the Women’s Lunch Place shelter on Newbury Street, wrote this essay in response to a query from columnist Joanna Weiss, who asked about the notion that providing people with assistance creates a culture of dependency. “Guest” is the shelter’s term for the 150 to 200 women who come each day for meals, naps, showers, and advocacy services.
I think that one of the strengths of America is that we are a culture of dependency. We believe in the idea that no man is an island that 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 boot straps unaided by anyone. Our guests are resilient and resourceful, their existence depends on those skills. Most people have support systems in their lives. Some are so fortunate that they can turn to family, friends, and other social and institutional constructs for support. In the case of our guests, some women find the support that they need to survive their difficult lives at the Women’s Lunch Place. We understand that sometimes with two jobs you still need some additional support. We also understand that with no jobs and often limited benefits, you need additional support. And, there are those women who have neither and their existence is balanced with what they can get at the Women’s Lunch Place other agencies and by other means. We believe that when women are supported and stabilized, families are stabilized. Is it a crime to have a home or perhaps a place to live and also need the support systems at the Women’s Lunch Place?
There is only so much that we can do. WLP is a day shelter for poor and homeless women, which means the women sleep somewhere else: in shelters, others on the street and public places, on a friend’s couch, in an apartment if they are lucky enough to have one. Our guests use WLP in different ways — the current thinking is that people need services and support in addition to a roof over their heads to ensure they don’t become homeless again — and for many of our guests WLP is a piece of an elaborate web they have to weave and reweave everyday to keep themselves fed, sheltered and safe. Some do it with more assistance and resources than others. Some are more self sufficient than others. But all live fragile lives in some way and everything can change suddenly for them (as is the case for all of us, really). But WLP meets its guests where they are and welcomes all. We take them at their word that they are hungry, tired or need services or kind words.
For the services we provide as a day shelter, I would not think there would be a wish on anyone’s part to be dependent on us if they could do anything to change their circumstances. It takes a lot to survive every day. Homelessness is an extremely complicated situation. The process to re-enter society is much harder than falling into homelessness. How much of my ability to claim self-sufficiency is related to my having a job, mental capacities, support systems. If any of these were to change, how self-sufficient might I be? Is there no place in our society for women who need support whether for 11 days or 11 years?
Sharon Reilly is executive director of the Women’s Lunch Place.