By SHILANDA WOOLRIDGE
Some come for the catered meal or chair massages. Others come for the intravenous needle exchange or the medical clinic. Some are here simply to get off the street.
Every Thursday night 40 to 50 women come to the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center to receive a little pampering at Ladies Night.
The doors open at 6 p.m. sharp, and there’s always a crowd waiting outside. Inside, a clothesline with curtains strung across the windows shuts out the rest of the world.
“Most homeless services are really dominated by men. So during the day some women just come and go to the bathroom. That’s their safe spot,” says Julie Leadbetter, community program manager at the center. “From the beginning our ladies were asking us pretty clearly to carve out some safe time just for women.”
That space is threatened by the city’s budget crisis. In January the San Francisco Department of Human Services announced a $14 million budget cut for 2009 and the center found out yesterday they will lose the $150,000 that supports their Ladies Night collaboration.
The Mission group provides support for residents who are homeless, in single-resident occupancy hotels, or in low-income housing. The drop-in center, open during the week, offers showers, inexpensive washing machines, a medical clinic, and other services.
“The economy is horrible, but we need to be careful about how we make these cuts,” says Leadbetter. “When you’re talking about that level of cuts to vulnerable people there will be some serious and expensive consequences.”
In the meantime, the night continues. And on a recent Thursday the voice of Curtis Mayfield from a boombox advises the women to “Keep on Pushing.” The smell of dinner wafts from the kitchen while the women sign in at the front desk. Some help themselves to the bowl filled with mini bags of Cheerios Snacks.
The women there catch up with old friends or make new ones. Some wander upstairs to see what they can find in the clothes closet. Dinner is served—a hearty burger, cheese puffs, steamed greens and a jumbo Nestle milk chocolate bar. While the women eat, volunteers take names for a raffle. Two lucky winners will win a makeover, and runner-up winners will net some hair care products.
Jeannie Jagielski dresses her hamburger and digs in with gusto. She comes to Ladies Night occasionally for the meal.
“The energy is awesome. It’s just for us ladies. Every once in a while we need that,” she says.
Jagielski lives in a single-resident occupancy hotel. Jagielski points at Mary Howe, director of the San Francisco Needle Exchange, who is behind the table in the back with two volunteers.
“I wouldn’t have made it had it not be been for Mary. She saved me,” says Jagielski.
Jagielski was living in an abandoned warehouse when she met Howe, who was working with the needle exchange in tandem with Haight Ashbury Youth Outreach.
“She helped me to get into the place I’m living now. I was about to give up hope,” says Jagielski.
Cross-service networking is the foundation of Ladies Night. Back in 2004 the only women’s needle exchange in the city was located at Valencia and Liberty streets, according to Leadbetter. The organizers had to shut it down, but they wanted the service to continue. San Francisco Needle Exchange picked up the service.
Then the Women’s Community Clinic proposed a site-based collaboration with the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center because they were doing homeless outreach in the streets.
Some of the other partners who have joined the team are the Psychiatric Foundation of Northern California and Care Through Touch, who give chair massages. Once a month the department of public health sends a practitioner to work in the medical clinic. Ladies Night attendees also have access to coveted seats at a methadone treatment center.
“So many organizations come to this site to provide their own services, so they are saving on overhead, staff time, and all the things they’d have to spend if they couldn’t provide their services here,” said Leadbetter.
Lydia Chu blinks her eyes aggressively while nibbling around the rim of her burger. She punctuates each sentence with an explosion of garrulous laughter. Chu is from San Francisco and prepared for the mercurial elements by wearing a large yellow slicker with a sweater underneath. Her squeaky clean hands are red, probably from multiple washings.
“I need a place to stay tonight. Do you have any suggestions?” asked Chu.
She quizzed Jagielski about the hotel where she lives and how she got a spot. When asked if she has family in town and where she slept the evening before, Chu is coy about answering. Chu meanders her way to one of the caseworkers who says they might be able to find her a bed for the evening. Chu, however, doesn’t have tuberculosis test results on hand, which are required for entry to most shelters.
It turns out none of this is news to Chu. The staff at the resource center has had this conversation with her before and may have it again the next time she comes to Ladies Night. Touch-and-go interactions like this are part of the job, staff say.
Later that evening, the kitchen is offering boxed leftovers for anyone who wants them. A few feet away from the kitchen window Jamie Armstrong-Pouncy, a volunteer from Women’s Community Clinic, presents one of the Ladies Night visitors with a new pair of size-five shoes from the clothes closet. The visitor tries them on and they are too big, which ironically is a small triumph.
“I always keep a look out for our women with small feet,” said Armstrong-Pouncy.
The night is coming to a close and the women are packing up their bounty for the evening. A woman runs in at the last minute to visit the needle exchange. While a volunteer assembles her supplies, Armstrong-Pouncy approaches with an extra dinner in a take-away box and hands it to the woman.
Leadbetter is realistic about the fate of the Ladies Night funding.
“We understand that almost everybody is going to be hit by the recession. So it’s not like we’re not willing to give up or stretch thin, but we need at least half of that money to keep up with the same level of service,” Leadbetter said. If we take a cut we’ll have to lose something else. We’ll do small things that add up to a big number, then if we have to, we’ll cut staff.”
The Ladies Night budget starts in July.
“If we don’t have any relief from the commission we’ll keep fighting all the way through the board, which is going to be grueling this year,” said Leadbetter.