Linda Winn was addicted to crack cocaine for 10 years. She sobered up six months ago, but she’s been battling homelessness for the past year.
Winn, a 51-year-old Somerville native, said she’s working with a few organizations to find permanent housing, but for now, she is staying at Woods-Mullen, a South End homeless shelter.
A few months ago, she discovered a haven of medical care — and free haircuts — just around the corner.
The quiet waiting room at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program is transformed into a buzz of activity every Saturday, offering women, most of whom are homeless, free medical care and welcoming them to a day of fun — with haircuts, facials, arts and crafts, and board games.
“I started coming a few months ago. I love the staff. It’s been helping with depression, helping with any problem I might have,” said Winn, who’s now the president of the Boston Area Drug Users Union, an informal support group.
In one corner, a group of women played bingo, while others danced and sang karaoke in the middle of the room. A table near the back was filled with markers, beads, and nail polish. Movies were shown in a separate room.
All these activities are part of HER Saturday, a program that offers a medical clinic for women who have suffered abuse, are homeless, or are in need of health care services, said Melinda Thomas, the program’s associate medical director.
“We wanted to create a safe space for women to come to,” Thomas said Saturday morning. “Just a place they can call their own, a place where there could be some community building, a place to let their hair down in response to all this repeated trauma they experience every day on the street.”
The HER Saturday program was launched in February 2016, Thomas said. When it first started, about 30 to 50 women would wander through the doors. Now, at least 100 women — sometimes up to 200 — line up at 7 a.m. every week, she said.
The Saturday clinic not only gives the women a chance to get manicures and watch romantic comedies but also provides preventative health care services and cancer screenings, which include mammograms and Pap smears. Homeless women have higher rates of mortality from breast and cervical cancer, Thomas said. A medical provider, a nurse, a case manager, a social worker, and a behavioral health counselor are available every week.
Dawn Young, 49, comes nearly every Saturday. She became homeless seven years ago after leaving Atlanta to escape an abusive relationship, she said.
“It helps me to interact with other women in similar situations,” Young said after she got a haircut and a facial Saturday. “It gives me a springboard, gives me hope.”
She was a cosmetologist back in Atlanta, she said, and is currently trying to renew her license, while she stays at the Woods-Mullen shelter.
The goal is to make sure women feel comfortable enough to open up about their medical needs, Thomas said.
Because many of the women who cycle through the health care center are suffering from chronic illnesses, mental illnesses, or substance-use disorders — or sometimes all three — they often develop a “tough exterior” that’s hard to break, she said.
“We’ve found that by creating a space where people are relaxed and connect to our staff and build relationships that way, we’re able to find out and tap into what they need,” Thomas said.
Many women attend HER Saturday just to be a part of a community.
Chauncy Williams, 45, of Dorchester has been homeless for about seven months and just recently started showing up at the Saturday gatherings. She usually stays at Woods-Mullen, she said, but HER Saturday has a different energy.
“It’s something to look forward to,” Williams said as she sipped a cup of coffee Saturday. “Being here, playing bingo, doing karaoke, it keeps me productive.”
Shirley Berard, a case manager for the program, said she wants to expand the program further — she’s working to provide ESL classes, GED preparation, and resume workshops for the women.
“It’s all about empowerment,” she said.
Another woman, 67, who asked not to be named, said she started coming to HER Saturday in June 2017. She became homeless three years ago, after moving to Boston from New Haven, Conn.
“This gives me a lot of hope,” she said. “There’s freedom here, freedom from everything we face at the shelter. . . . The shelter can be very depressing and draining, but you come here and it’s super positive. You get recharged.”
Elise Takahama can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @elisetakahama.