|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.
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.
Ruth's Place resident Tammy
Gibson prepares a meal.
"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
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."
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."
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."
Regina Drasher, a former resident at the shelter, now serves as a volunteer.
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
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
"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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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