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Women's Hearth creates compassionate space

Susan Tyler-Babkirk creates environment conducive to hope.

By Catherine Ferguson, SNJM

Women's Hearth celebrates 30 years of presence to women in downtown Spokane. It provides activities, classes, social-service referrals and housing-search case management in a compassionate and supportive environment seven days a week.

Participants have access to phones, computers, internet, healthy food, hygiene supplies, free showers, and a respite room. None of these makes the Hearth a unique program.

The fact that so many participants feel accepted as regular persons and for who they are leads them to recognize the Hearth as a community where they are safe, secure and belong. That makes it a unique program.

The current program director, Susan Tyler-Babkirk speaks warmly of the program, its history and memories.

"The women talk about their memories in both the new and the old building. I have only been here since 2004 and was never in the old building, but I love to hear their stories," she said.

In December 1990, the then Women's Drop-In Center was begun by Holy Names Sister Cathy Beckley, who had a heart for needs of women on the streets. No one could have known that 30 years later it would need to be and continue to be a place of safety, security and community for women in the city.

At first, the Drop-In Center was housed rent free on the first floor of the Jefferson Hotel. 

"Our beginnings were very humble." said Sister Cathy. "My phone bill was paid by another woman who participated in a prayer group I directed and everything else was done by volunteers or given to us."

Today, two moves away from the Jefferson Hotel, the Hearth is in its own permanent space at 920 W. 2nd Ave. It has also changed its name from Women's Drop-In Center to a more inviting name, Women's Hearth and has become a program of Transitions.

It remains as it was in 1990, a safe space for women who have experienced poverty, trauma and/or homelessness, offering women a "hearth" of welcome, respect and community as a drop-in day center in downtown Spokane.

In the last year, 900 women accessed the Hearth and 33 of them found permanent housing.

Sarah Lickfold, Transitions development director, describes the Hearth as a unique program in the United States. 

"One reason for this is the access women who are homeless have.  Hope House, an overnight women's shelter, is now only a few minutes' walk from the Hearth. This means women who stay overnight at Hope House have a safe, secure and family-like place with many resources to come to during the day," she said.

Over and over during the recent Transitions "People Who Care" fundraiser, which featured the Hearth's 30-year anniversary, the women, staff and volunteers emphasized their sense of belonging and the sense of community that made such a positive difference in their lives.

Sister Patty Beattie, the Hearth's second director, while it was still the Drop-In Center and on Howard St., described a serendipitous event that helped build a sense of community in her time.

"A woman who was living on the third floor of the hotel where we were, came to us one day because her apartment was being renovated and they were going to start charging her an extra $500 because she had a pet—a parakeet. She wanted us to take the parakeet because she couldn't afford that extra charge." 

At first Sister Patty didn't want to take the bird but she eventually did only to find out that it gave great comfort to some women who were troubled when they came in.

"A woman would come and sit down in front of the bird, begin talking with it, and it would talk back to her.  After a time, I could see her visibly relax, and then come in the rest of the way and engage positively with others."

The bird is no longer there but many other special things take place that help everyone feel that the Hearth is a community where they belong: an annual spring prom, a knitting and crochet circle, a snow event in the middle of a hot summer, birthday celebrations and as many creative events as staff and volunteers can provide.

In her keynote at the fundraiser, Anjali Dutt, a one-time volunteer at the Hearth, described learning from the women there.

"I learned from them about resilience in the face of compounded inequity, solidarity with others who have experienced harm and deep pain. I learned from the women every day about the joy of feeling that you are part of a community," she said.

In 2020, Anjali, now a college professor and researcher, returned to the Hearth for a research project, interviewing 22 women who participated in the Hearth for varying lengths of time. She found that coming facilitated a sense of agency and capability. The women could better accomplish goals they had in their daily lives. Most important, the women emphasize how powerful it was to be treated like a regular person when they were there.

"To them, we aren't homeless people, we are just people," one woman explained. "We are accepted for who we are."

Another said, "I can come here and feel like I am a part of some kind of light, some kind of sanctuary, some kind of collaboration, some kind of future."

At the fundraiser there were also women and staff from the Hearth who gave their first-hand testimony about what the Hearth meant to them and how it empowered them to live out the ideal that "the fullness of each person is realized in relation to others."

Michelle Schlienger, an alumna from the Hearth shared a poem that expressed how she benefited from the Hearth and its programs at a time when she was suffering from mental illness. 

"I felt very grateful that I was there. They always made time for you and accepted you as you were," she said.

Susan said there are volunteer and employment opportunities for those wanting to work in this program.

For information, email or view 1)video on the 30 years of Hearth history and 2)another video.

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December, 2021