IN THE COZY rooms at the Calverton, cheerful with fresh paint and donated bedroom furniture, 13 women have been setting up home. Small radios, cosmetics, plants and books give each private bedroom a personal stamp -- something unfamiliar and exciting for the formerly homeless women who are settling in for good.
"I love it, I really do. You don't see rats or roaches, it's a place that's clean and quiet. We treat it like a home," says Carolyn Lewis, 41, a recovering drug and alcohol addict who has lived in the building at N. Calvert and E. 25th streets since it opened one month ago.
"When you move in, everyone tries to help you get settled," says Lewis about her fellow tenants. "They ask if you have enough food or need any help getting on your feet. You feel welcome because everyone's been there and knows how it is."
The Calverton is Maryland's first single room occupancy (SRO) project for the homeless and also the first permanent housing facility for homeless women. The building is operated by the Women's Housing Coalition and Associated Catholic Charities and was funded by the city, state and private foundations and individuals. The women living at the Calverton all meet federal requirements for public housing assistance by earning income and benefits under $7,900 a year.
Tina Mooney, director of the Women's Housing Coalition, says there is no typical profile of a homeless woman. She may suffer from mental or physical disabilities, substance abuse or domestic violence, or she may have lost the support of a husband or boyfriend. Of the homeless population in Maryland, 36 percent are women and 64 percent are men, according to Action for the Homeless.
Homeless women are often hidden from view because many forgo sleeping on the street, preferring shelter, however unsavory it may be. For a night out of the cold, many Calverton residents handed over their food stamps and social service benefits to unscrupulous acquaintances. Others were forced into sex or put up with emotional or physical abuse. Many were abandoned by their families and had no safe refuge.
Clarice Alston, for example, never felt she had a home. Raised in an unhappy foster home environment, she found herself on her own after high school, unable to keep clerical jobs and maintain the medication schedule needed for her diabetes and epilepsy. She had a baby at 21 and lived with the child's father for a few years; since they broke up, the baby's grandmother has cared for the child.
"I'd like to get my daughter when I get myself together," says Alston, now 25. "With my health and emotional situation, I'm having problems when it comes to myself just dealing with life and its ups and downs. I need to have enough strength to get myself together for my little girl and to achieve some of my goals. I've got to do it step by step."
Shirley Johnson, 38, found herself homeless after leaving a boyfriend who battered her. After being counseled in transitional housing, she moved on to the Calverton where, without complaint, she rises before 4 a.m. each morning to catch the bus and then the van that take her to work as a nursing aid at the Greater Laurel Nursing Center. She is training to be a nurse's aid and eventually wants to become a licensed practical nurse.
Problems at home led Phyllis McSpadden to homelessness. As a senior in high school, she became pregnant and wanted an abortion. McSpadden says her parents insisted she have the child so she left home to have the abortion, then cast about for a new home afterward, bouncing from friends to relatives. At the same time, her casual drug use escalated into intravenous drug addiction. In the end, she underwent treatment and entered a structured, transitional program for recovering addicts, which ultimately helped her find her spot at the Calverton. At 25, she is drug-free and enjoying work in the cafeteria at Sinai Hospital.
"I'm still working on learning to love myself, but I do like myself," says McSpadden. "I had a self-esteem problem from the time I was very young." Now, her relationship with her parents is slowly being rebuilt.
"I'm growing up and learning how to address things to them, to express myself," says McSpadden.
McSpadden has submitted a bus driver application to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and dreams of someday going to college and being married.
"My time is too valuable to be complacent -- just to lie back. I don't want to feel like that," says McSpadden. "I really want to move on and give another woman a chance by my stepping out. I think about preparing myself to leave so some other homeless woman can come here."
This feeling of responsibility to others runs through many of the women. Elsie James, a former drug addict who went through treatment before coming to the Calverton, wants to work with homeless women as a career. She has a head start with her role as appointed assistant manager of the Calverton.
I'm very proud. I feel really great about it," says James. "I will be running the house the same as Yvonne [Butler, the Calverton manager], making sure the ladies are OK." She also works in a clerical job at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she receives a regular paycheck but still worries about handling the money.
"When I came here I was very, very fearful. I even find myself that way now. When I get my paycheck, I go straight to my sister and put half in the bank. At this point, I'm afraid temptation could come at any time," says James.
Learning to control one's money and other elements of living is key to breaking the cycle of homelessness, says Yvonne Butler, resident counselor as well as manager at the Calverton. Butler has created a tenants' council where the women themselves set standards for housekeeping, visiting hours and other rules for the SRO. The Calverton is not a structured program, so women come and go as they please. This is novel for many of the women who have been through highly regimented substance abuse programs.
"I can go out when I want, get up and go to bed when I want. It's a whole new thing," says Lewis.
Perhaps Roxanne Smith is the woman at the Calverton with the most completely changed existence. In her late teen years, Smith developed severe agoraphobia, or fear of leaving home.
"I left home only a dozen times in 10 years," says Smith, now 29. She was kicked out of high school for truancy, and lived in seclusion with her mother into her late 20s.
Finally, she found the courage to see a doctor for help. She was sent to Springfield Mental Hospital, which she says "turned my life around." She conquered her fear of the outside, earned a G.E.D. high school diploma and transferred to Marian House, a transitional facility for women. One evening, she struck up a long conversation about her life with a kind volunteer. Unknown to Smith, the volunteer was Sister Kathleen Feeley, president of the College of Notre Dame. Feeley decided Smith would benefit from a Notre Dame education, and this fall, Smith entered the freshman class with a full scholarship.
"It was like receiving the biggest Christmas present you could ever think of," says Smith. "All those years I didn't have a high school diploma I dreamed of going to college . . . when I started I was terrified I would fail, that being a freshman at 29 I'd stick out like a sore thumb. I can't complain, even though the grading is tough and I sometimes study up to 3 in the morning studying -- it's what I've always wanted."
Now, as she balances classes in Latin, history and media, she also works part time in a clerical job at Notre Dame. Living with the other women at the Calverton is also a source of excitement.
"I've never lived on my own, and the Calverton, being a group situation, is closer to it than I've ever been," says Smith. "I'm glad I'm here. Otherwise, I might have ended up in another shelter or transitional housing. Having been in a shelter, knowing how tough it is, I was one of the ones who really was blessed."