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At Women’s Lunch Place in Back Bay, a new focus on sobriety

Lisa Hathaway Oliveira (right) spoke with social worker Doris Romero outside Women’s Lunch Place.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Lisa Hathaway Oliveira has seen the worst of the streets. She’s been beaten and robbed, slept outside on the coldest nights, and has long struggled with alcoholism.

But over the past seven years, ever since she fled an abusive relationship and wound up homeless, she has found solace at Women’s Lunch Place, a daytime shelter and advocacy center in the Back Bay for homeless and transient women that is now introducing new wellness programs — including one that provides help fighting substance abuse.

“It’s a lot harder for women to be homeless,” said the 53-year-old mother of three and grandmother of two, after a recent meeting with a social worker. “This has been a safe haven for me.”


For four decades, Women’s Lunch Place has served as a refuge for women during their toughest times. Based in the historic Church of the Covenant on Newbury Street, it offers a place to get a shower, a hot breakfast and lunch, and the opportunity to team up with a social worker who can provide assistance on a range of issues, from filling out tax forms to applying for housing.

And recently, the shelter started offering expanded wellness programs, including a new substance abuse treatment program that was launched earlier this month to help women battling addiction or suffering from mental illness, or both.

The new programming, organizers said, is the growing recognition of the opioid and homelessness epidemics the city faces, particularly in the area known as Mass. and Cass, and the need for more organizations outside that area to focus on treating clients for the root causes of their mental illness and substance abuse disorders.

“We had to do this,” said Nancy Armstrong, the shelter’s director of operations, who started researching the programming in the fall. “The women who are grappling with these issues, they are our most vulnerable population.”


Armstrong pointed to recent reports of women being trafficked for sex in the area of Mass. and Cass to underline the need for expanding treatment programs. Even at Women’s Lunch Place, where women have historically gone to seek shelter from violence and for help with substance use and mental illness, she’s seen the worsening toll that the opioid epidemic, specifically use of the drug fentanyl, has had on clients.

One of the strategies that community groups and health care advocates have put forward to address the crisis at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard is to decentralize services from the area, saying the dense concentration of programming in one spot — a needle exchange program and methadone clinics, right by a homeless shelter — has created a dangerous environment of open-air drug use and violence. Organizers at Women’s Lunch Place see their programming as a way to help their clients, in a safe environment away from that area.

The shelter’s launch of its recovery program comes as the Boston Public Health Commission recently started testing its own pilot program offering van transportation to people on the streets who want to go to a day center in another part of the city, where they can take part in such services.

“We’ve always envisioned this as a safe way to enter recovery, under safe circumstances,” Armstrong said. “This is a safe place, where [women] can talk about their struggles.”


The new programming involves peers who act as counselors and interact with participants in support groups, providing emotional support and guidance in discussions of a participant’s substance use or mental illness, and emotional tools to use in looking to recovery. Many of the peers have recovered from trauma and substance abuse themselves.

A “Dual Recovery Group” focuses on the connection between trauma and addiction, and a separate group, “Eight Dimensions of Wellness for Recovery,” focuses on holistic wellness-oriented recovery methods, addressing physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being, as well as environmental and occupational conditions.

The support groups, which have overlapping participants, are run in partnership with Boston Metro Recovery Learning Community.

Yuka Gordon, director of the Learning Community, said her organization has offered similar programming at other shelters and organizations that support the homeless, but she said Women’s Lunch Place has a reputation as a safer environment for women, compared with sites that accommodate men, too. That safer environment, Gordon said, could provide a level of trust that allows peers to better connect with participants.

The programming, she said, is focused on treating mental illness, which in turn can help address substance abuse disorders. And the group settings, she said, are meant to foster an open, constructive conversation between the counselors and the participants.

“The benefit of Women’s Place is that females feel really safe to go there,” she said. “Once participants feel safe, it makes them feel more comfortable and safe to really open up to their story.”

Jennifer Hanlon Wigon, the shelter’s executive director, said the programs will build on relationships that many of the organization’s social workers have built with participants, helping to establish a level of trust.


“Women may come here for a meal, and once they understand the services we have, and they feel safe — maybe then they can start to connect,” she said.

A woman who would only identify herself as Sarah to protect her privacy said she recently started participating in the support groups, and they have helped her stay with her recovery.

Sarah, 47, bounced in and out of addiction to crack cocaine as well as heroin, and she’s done prison time for dealing heroin. But every time she returns to Women’s Lunch Place, she said, she finds comfort.

Sarah, who regularly heads to the Mass. and Cass area for methadone treatment, said the fentanyl crisis has taken a toll on the city, and the programming at Women’s Lunch Place is a way to help.

“The drug market, it’s just so out of control,” she said. With the programming, she said, “If it’s here, people will come.”

Oliveira, who said she stopped going to Mass. and Cass after she was assaulted there last July, said life on the streets is tough — especially there. “It’s so bad, you have no business walking there,” she said. “People take everything from you, everything.”

But the Women’s Lunch Place and its new programming offer sanctuary.

“The people, the heart and soul of this place, saved me,” she said. “It’s a safe place. A blessing.”


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617.