Ruth’s Place more than just shelter for women

Alyssa Stencavage, L&A&E Editor

The things so many of us take for granted are the things that some need the most.
It took five years for a woman named Monique to gather the strength to leave an abusive boyfriend, which left her without custody of her daughter and left the girl to her parents, who gave up on Monique due to the situation. A friend was kind enough to allow Monique a place to stay until she got back on her feet, but that quickly changed when the abusive ex-boyfriend began driving past her friend’s house daily.
Another woman’s story shows how decisions can impact the rest of someone’s life. More than 23 years ago, this woman’s choices put criminal charges on her record and made finding a job challenging.
“I suffer from depression and anxiety,” she said. “I have lived on this friend’s couch and that friend’s couch. I am tired and want a place to call home.”
Carmen is 53 years-old and single.
Deb, a 46 year-old mother of two, recently divorced and lost her job of eight years when the company downsized. After being unemployed for two months and defaulting on bills, an eviction notice appeared on her door. With no family in the area and not wanting to uproot her children, the children’s father offered to take them until Deb is able to get back on her feet.
“I’m heartbroken but have no choice,” she said.
Despite these unfortunate circumstances, thanks to Ruth’s Place, these women found a safe haven and were able to move beyond their past.
“I was very scared at first, but quickly it began to feel like home,” Monique said. ”I attended support groups and regained my strength. I applied for a transitional housing program and applied to regain custody of my daughter. I see a future for myself.”
“Right away I was accepted with open arms,” Carmen said. “I began meeting with the Case Manager, attending the in-house groups and got set up with a counselor and employment coach. I learned how to fill out job applications and interviewing skills. I applied for permanent jobs and was hired last week. I am now looking for an affordable apartment. With the help at Ruth’s Place, I finally feel like my past does not define who I am today.
“With the help of the staff and programs that come into Ruth’s Place I found a job within two weeks,” Deb said. “I listened to the other women and their stories. I began to understand how homelessness can happen to anyone. I began looking for an apartment and found one where my children could remain in the same school. After 27 days at Ruth’s Place, I packed my bags to move into my new home. I will be back to volunteer my time to a place that gave me so much.”
Ruth’s Place, which has been operating in Wilkes-Barre since 2003, is the only emergency shelter for homeless women in Luzerne County.
It started when a Pastor Keith Benjamin and his wife noticed women sleeping outside the First Methodist Church. An overnight program at the church run by the couple turned into the organization Ruth’s Place House of Hope Inc. Shelter Director Kristen Topolski, eventually came on board, and the organization gained a case manager and resident advisers. The goal all along was to open a 24-hour program that would offer more than just a one night stay.
“There was a strong need for a women’s shelter in the community and that need is what gave Ruth’s Place the opportunity to become what it is today,” resident adviser and group leader Crystal Williams said.
Ruth’s Place offers a 30-day stay, giving women the opportunity a chance to find stable housing or get a plan in place, but should the women need an extension, it will be granted. One wouldn’t find any empty beds at Ruth’s place due to the constant flow of women.
“It gets to the point where we have to turn quite a few women away because there are no beds available,” Williams, who began as an intern, said.
The program is also now part of Volunteers of America of Pennsylvania.
The shelter’s name has roots in Biblical times, coming from the story of Naomi and Ruth, who was also a homeless woman.
“This story highlights our mission of women supporting women,” Ruth’s Place director Kristen Topolski said.
For many Ruth’s Place doesn’t seem to be a place of great familiarity, both on the map and in the mission. For those who are familiar, there is a common misconception that lies at the heart of what this shelter is all about. When people hear about the shelter, they might be inclined to think that it is a group of girls who have made bad decisions, such as drug addicts, prostitutes and so on.
However, that is often not the case. Many of these women don’t have the support systems they need when times get tough and the economy and city living become too overwhelming.
“There are a lot of hoops to jump through, and when you’re on the streets, you don’t have all the time in the world,” Williams said.
As the three women mentioned earlier demonstrate, Ruth’s Place sees women from all walks of life, including homeowners, elderly and young women, people with disabilities and everyone and everything in between. Many who come to Ruth’s Place have been affected by some type of trauma in their lifetime such as abuse. All cases of domestic violence are referred to the Domestic Violence Shelter Center, but if the center is unavailable to the women, Ruth’s Place is there to lend a helping hand.
Ruth’s Place may provide a bed or temporary housing for those with nowhere else to turn, but it is also much more than that. The shelter is a program that provides case management, providing individual attention to figure out what steps to take to secure housing and what type of housing is appropriate for the situation. All of this is done by the case manager, who makes referrals to other organizations to provide what Ruth’s Place can’t, and to give women access to the resources they need.
Through case management and group interaction, these women are able to thrive in a way that might not otherwise have been possible.
“As staff, we try to give them a shoulder to lean on and a place to come when they’re having problems,” Williams said. “We provide support groups. It’s like a light at the end of the tunnel in a way. If they need someone to talk to
Women can participate in activities such as crafts and meditation.
Ruth’s Place hasn’t just lived up to its original expectations, it’s done better. Last year, the shelter served 292 women. The meaning goes much deeper than the numbers.
“Women are linked with appropriate community-based resources, assisted with finding employment and housing and taught life skills to become self-sufficient. Ruth’s Place offers women hope when they feel hopeless,” Topolski said.
As word spreads, hope rises.
“Slowly but surely through things like the Walk-athon, we’re raising awareness,” Williams said. “It seems more people know about us and support us than ever.”
“A Mile in Her Shoes,” a fundraising and awareness-raising event, was held on Nov. 6 on Public Square. This year’s walk brought the biggest turnout so far, especially considering people stayed longer.
Volunteers at Ruth’s Place believe that helping these women also helps brighten their perspectives, and they see these women transforming right before their eyes.
“I see the women change from being vulnerable to strong,” Williams said. “Ruth’s Place is just part of a journey but it gives the women an opportunity to get started on a better future. I’m luckier that I have support in my life when I stumble and have a home to go to when I leave work. I believe Ruth’s Place provides a home-like atmosphere, but it’s not the same. I’m just glad that I’ve had this opportunity to meet these amazing women, they make me a better person by teaching me things about themselves.”
“As the Director of the shelter, it is amazing to watch the strength and determination of the women,” Topolski said. “I am honored to be a voice for these women as I go into our community and speak about the plight of homeless women. There is definitely a change in the women. They often arrive at the shelter scared and sometimes broken. We work very hard to help them see that they are capable of setting and reaching goals.  It is amazing to see the smiles on their faces as they reach goals. Staff, interns, and volunteers serve as constant role models for the women by the things we do and say. We teach the women to have confidence and to give back.”