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Ruth's Place provides sanctuary for homeless women

Erica Winterling has found refuge at Ruth's Place, a shelter for homeless women at First United Methodist Church in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. UMNS photos by Reed Galin.

By Reed Galin*
April 8, 2008 | WILKES-BARRE, Pa. (UMNS)

People generally don’t make eye contact with strangers along a city sidewalk, but it’s more obvious when they walk past Erica Winterling. Folks find reasons to glance the other way.

It’s not that Winterling is obviously homeless. Her clothes are not frayed; her long gray hair is not matted. She’s just not dressed like more purposeful workers and shoppers in downtown Wilkes-Barre. And there’s something subtly different about her countenance that conveys a sense of deep resignation.

"I’m 56 years old, and I shouldn’t be here," she says with more dismay than anger. She found herself on the street when a landlord sold the house she was living in and she had no money to get another place.

Winterling's initial reticence to talk about being homeless quickly melts away. It’s too long since anyone asked how she feels about anything, and it needs to spill out––now!

"People look at you like you don’t count because you’re homeless," she says. "It’s an ill feeling. It’s awkward. I feel hurt, frustrated."

A place to be

It’s the end of the workday for people rushing around her, but there isn’t anywhere Winterling needs to be. In this twilight hour, she would have been contemplating another night under a bridge or in an abandoned building until, a few months ago, she found Ruth's Place.

The only shelter for women in northeast Pennsylvania, Ruth's Place operates out of First United Methodist Church and is supported entirely by private donations. The ministry provides a meal and sleeping accommodations for a few dozen women and is staffed by volunteers.

Ruth's Place resident Tammy
Gibson prepares a meal.

Winterling keeps her few possessions at Ruth’s Place. This provides her with a temporary sense of order—a place where she can keep her hopes and seek refuge from the cold feeling she gets on the streets.

"The majority of these women have been living in chaos," says shelter director Julie Benjamin. "We try to bring some direction in their lives that are not so chaotic."

Contributors to Ruth's Place range from small congregations and individuals to businesses like the Ramada Inn that donates bedding and local markets and bakeries that provide food. Tonight, there is a tall stack of rolls and bread in the church kitchen, and Benjamin is passing out donated clothes. Women reach for them gently, as if not wanting to take anything that someone else might need more.

Benjamin and her husband, Keith, the pastor here, began the shelter when they came to the church five years ago. It has gone from being a temporary, seasonal shelter to a year-round operation.

As she heats up a simple pot of noodles with half a dozen other women in the kitchen, Winterling talks about what the shelter means to her. Others quietly nod in agreement when she says you can feel at home here if you try get along with everyone. "But it’s hard," she adds.

Some of the women are addicts. Some have been prostituting themselves for a place to live. There are mental health issues. Some are recently out of jail, others just plain broke. One resident tonight has two master’s degrees, but no job. They've ranged in age from 18 to 74.

At the bottom of it all, Benjamin says, is a fundamental struggle: "Most have an underlying problem with depression, and their self-worth is in the dumps."

Unlike most emergency shelters, there is no limit on the amount of time a woman can stay here. "We just don’t turn anyone away," Benjamin says. "We’re hoping that somehow in the time they’re here, something will click to make them be able to find what they need to be successful outside the shelter."

Finding hope

It worked for Regina Drasher, 27. With her soft complexion and granny glasses, Drasher doesn’t look like a former drug addict who was imprisoned for assault. "Now I’m clean for almost a year, I’m in a house, I’ve gotten my GED."

Regina Drasher, a former resident at the shelter, now serves as a volunteer.

What made the difference, she says, is simple. Someone cared. "Most people in our society, you screw up once or twice they don’t want to be bothered with you. I always thought I was a failure, but I have people now who encourage me to do good, like Julie and Pastor Keith. They still guide me today."

Drasher is a guide now herself, volunteering at Ruth’s Place. "They can’t pull any crap because I’ve been there. If you have to be here by 9 p.m., or get locked out, ya read the rules, ya signed the agreement. Because it’s a little bit of stability in their lives that they need to learn."

Counselors from social service agencies visit every week to help women understand how financial aid and health care may be available to them. But Julie Benjamin, who devotes untold hours here while working weekends as a nurse, is the first to acknowledge that many of the women still fail.

"We are missionaries in America. I care about them, I cry with them, I laugh with them. It’s a decision I’ve made that this is part of my calling."

For tonight, that calling means that Erica Winterling will have a warm bed in the church basement, surrounded by 22 other women and all their worldly possessions. Though there are many uncertainties in her life, she is grateful that she can count on Ruth's Place.

"It’s a bridge where you can build your self-esteem back up––make yourself worthy of that, and what you want to do with your life," she says. "I’m not really sure."

*Galin is a freelance producer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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