LOST IN THE SHUFFLE Homeless women stay invisible by melting into the background

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You, may have seen them: Women lingering alone over a cup of coffee in a restaurant, relaxing on a sofa in the public library, washing up in the hotel restroom.

No doubt you thought nothing of it.

But when the restaurants and libraries close, these women don't go home. They don't have homes.

They live in cars, vans, sheds, abandoned houses, perhaps storerooms in businesses where they have minimum-wage jobs. They survive because they know their way around middle-class society, know how to find hotel restrooms to bathe in and grocery-store salad bars to nibble from, according to a recently published book about homeless women, written by Baltimore native Marjorie Bard.

"Shadow Women: Homeless Women's Survival Stories" (Sheed & Ward, Kansas City, Kan., $9.95) documents stories of homeless women who survive, for the most part unnoticed, in urban and suburban surroundings. Ms. Bard said she did more than 1,000 interviews and used her findings as part of her doctoral thesis at the University of California Los Angeles.

These women are part of a growing number of women who thought their lives were safely on track but were displaced through divorce, a deceased spouse or the loss of a job, Ms. Bard said. And many of them, battered by their husbands or boyfriends, were forced to make a choice: Stay in an untenable relationship or be homeless.

Just how many women might be living in this manner is difficult to assess, Ms. Bard said in a telephone interview from Beverly Hills, Calif., where she nows lives with her mother. Estimates of the number ofhomeless come from tallies made by shelters, but the women she interviewed were too proud and too embarrassed to frequent shelters.

These women, however, are an exception among the homeless. The majority of homeless women were living near poverty level when a crisis -- loss of a job, physical or mental illness, death of a spouse -- led to them losing their homes, said local social workers.

Betty Russell, author of a soon-to-be-published book on homeless women, "Silent Sisters," said, "The women I interviewed, the women who go to shelters, lived and had lived closer to the poverty level. It was a rarity to meet women who had lived as middle class."

Still, said Mary Ellen Vanni, director of My Sister's Place, a day-time center for homeless women and children in Baltimore, "we have met people from time to time who were actually living in a car. I think they're desperate. They don't know where to begin to get themselves started [in a job]. I don't think it's surprising that this happens."

One woman periodically came to My Sister's Place to change clothes and to bathe, Ms. Vanni said. She worked in Cockeysville but couldn't afford rent so she lived in a car. Another woman, who frequents the center, leaves home to sleep in her car whenever she has a problem with a family member.

"It's very common to hear these stories," said Jacquelyn Gaines, executive director of Health Care for the Homeless, which provides medical, mental health and social services for the homeless in Baltimore.

And in the case of battered women, "What I hear is that they don't even tell their families. People say, 'Why don't they go to their families?' but they are afraid their families are somehow going to leak where they are," Ms. Gaines said.

"A lot of people say, 'Why don't they get a job?' Well, we're talking about middle or lower class American women who have lived with the secret of violence in their homes. They may have [college] degrees, but they started out being homemakers and they didn't use the B.A. so they have no or few marketable skills. They have skills, but not skills that can be marketed without experience."

Since publication of Ms. Bard's book in August -- and a subsequent article in the Los Angeles Times -- the author has been swamped with calls from homeless women. And

she has been approached by several production companies about TV and movie rights, said her publisher.

The homeless cause is important to her: Ms. Bard first stumbled upon these women in the '70s when she and her husband separated and she left her Baltimore-area home, she said. Although she had a bachelor of arts degree in social welfare, she said, as a middle-aged woman without marketable work experience, she had difficulty finding a job that would support her.

In 1975 and '76, Ms. Bard, the daughter of a California doctor and a librarian, moved from place to place living out of her car and trying to earn enough to live on as a jewelry maker, she said.

"I was looking for answers to my own questions as I traveled. I was referred to other people like me. But nobody in their right mind would believe these stories. How could it happen to me? How could it happen to them?"

For a few years, Ms. Bard lived in a Towson apartment. During this time, she began recording the stories of the women she met -- in rest rooms in downtown Baltimore hotels and department stores, in the public library and in rural areas of Maryland and Pennsylvania, she said.

"I started writing these things down. I had a gut feeling I needed to get this down word for word. I would write on the back of the place mat in Gino's. I would write on napkins. Once I wrote on my skirt."

But in the late '70s, Ms. Bard began having trouble making ends meet. "I realized if I couldn't make it to my mother's [in California], I'd be homeless," she said. She began a cross-country trip that entailed such economies as living out of her car and befriending hotel maids so she could slip into rooms between guests to shower, using the complimentary shampoos.

She met even more women doing the same thing, she said. And she kept recording their stories. Meanwhile, she moved in with her mother and began applying for grants and scholarships. She attended UCLA and in 1988 earned her doctorate in folklore with an emphasis on organizational design and development.

In great part, Ms. Bard blames the number of homeless women on a court and social system that allows them to slip through its cracks. Battered women face the hardest battles, she said.

Even without battering, she said, frequently, "women can't get anything in divorce settlements and the men are in wonderful upwardly mobile lifestyles and the women live in their cars. They are literally the invisible homeless."

Ms. Bard worked for a time as a domestic violence victim's advocate in the Los Angeles court system. But the experience upset her: "I watched the court system make homeless women. They'd make women testify against husbands and then they couldn't go home. They'd go live in their cars or wherever they could." She quit in disgust.

Until now, the plight of these women hasn't been publicized because they aren't easily spotted, Ms. Bard said. They can while away an afternoon, undetected, at a museum. They frequent the malls -- to get warm, not to shop. They wear make-up -- from the free samples at cosmetic counters. They munch on complimentary hors-d'oeuvres at happy hours -- for dinner.

But "the reality is that it's true: that right here in Baltimore City, there are women like this," said Ms. Gaines, of Health Care for the Homeless. "I've known this for years, and since I'm a women's health care nurse practitioner, I've heard the stories."

And a steady stream of women visit New Directions, a displaced homemaker program financed by the state Department of Human Resources, which helps women over 30 who were primarily homemakers and who have lost their financial support.

"A lot of women are displaced -- most are living with a friend, a grown-up daughter, a mother and it's usually a temporary arrangement," said Joan Patterson, program director.

To end what Ms. Bard sees as a parade of women from homes to homeless, she has formed an organization called Women Organized Against Homelessness (WOAH), through which she works one-on-one with homeless women who contact her. She advocates forming a nationwide network through already established women's church groups, which would provide help and information about low-income housing and jobs to women in need.

C7 "I pick up where the agencies leave off," she said.

From 'Shadow Women'

The bigger the library, the better chance of never being bothered. I think I have the equivalent of a college education after two years of steady reading. And I love that . . . I go from floor to floor and from subject to subject. If I can get to one of the few sofas, I can be comfortable for most of the day. You're not supposed to eat in there, but I always have crackers and canned juice in my bag. . . There are bathrooms where I can wash every day, and the whole place just makes me feel good.

--Paula, 39, Baltimore, 1978 I got [a van] fixed so's I can stay as long as I want on good safe streets, if there's such a thing anymore. But I been bothered by some of the residents 'cause the van sticks out. . . . So what I did was drive slowly 'round in the evening at dinnertime and right about breakfast and see which houses have teen-aged boys who have vans. Then I park near those houses and apartments, and the neighbors think my van belongs to one of their friends. I stay for a couple of days on one street and move to another, and come back. If the neighbors see the same van come back again and again, they don't get worried it's a burglar. I park only when I know I'm in for the night so no one sees I'm a lady. --Jeanine, Towson area, 1978.

To find help

For more information about New Directions, a displaced homemaker program, call 235-8800. For information about Women Organization Against Homelessness (WOAH), call (213)277-5976.

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