History of House of Ruth
(Excerpt from The Washington Post) On a wintry day in 1970, Georgetown University professor Veronica Maz took two of her sociology students to Washington’s skid row to see poverty close up. They talked to a few of the homeless people who were roasting chicken claws over fire barrels.
“And then I was going back to my car and my real nice comfortable home,” Dr. Maz later wrote in The Washington Post. “And a man fell down right in front of me, right on the sidewalk. And I just walked around him and got in my car.
“And when I got in my car, I started talking to myself,” she continued. “I said, ‘Why didn’t you help him?’ Well, I just assumed he was drunk. Well, what if he were drunk? He could’ve had a heart attack. . . . All that night I didn’t sleep. It bothered me personally. Whatever these sensitivities that you grow up with that you’re not even conscious of. That’s faith.”
Dr. Maz, who died June 25 at 89, became widely regarded as a patron saint of Washington’s hungry, indigent, abused and dispossessed.
On a shoestring budget, she helped start three of Washington’s most important nonprofit social service organizations: So Others Might Eat, which offers free food, counseling and health care to the homeless; the House of Ruth, which shelters and advises battered women; and Martha’s Table, which opened in 1980 (with $93) as a place for children to get free sandwiches after school.
On House of Ruth’s first night in 1976, we gave shelter to eight homeless women in the basement of a row home on Massachusetts Avenue. At the time, the District had only a few shelters for men, and none dedicated to serving women or their children.
We knew from day one that women in crisis needed a lot more than an overnight stay and a bag of groceries. When treated with respect and understanding, and given the skills for independence, women who have survived domestic abuse, homelessness, and trauma change their lives.
With every year, we unearthed more of the roots of crisis the women and children we served were facing. In response, House of Ruth opened homes just for homeless women and their children, a free domestic violence counseling center, and a nationally-accredited developmental day care center for infants and toddlers.
We now serve more than 1,000 women and children every year.
In each of our more than 40 years, we responded to our experience not just by growing but by improving – training our staff, adding new support groups for women and children, building a tight network of agencies across the city, and crafting more services to address employment, health, housing, self-esteem, and trauma.
We deeply appreciate the outpouring of concern and compassion from the Washington, DC community and our family of supporters like you, who have nurtured House of Ruth’s growth from infancy to today.
HOUSE OF RUTH: Because A Woman’s Place Is Not On the Streets
It was the early 1970s, and Veronica Maz was eyeing more and more women in the daily soup line at So Others Might Eat (SOME). They were poor, ill, sometimes badly bruised, and always alone. Meanwhile, society denied their existence. Women were supposed to be at home and well-provided for, not on the streets; cherished by their families and spouses, not abused. The District of Columbia had only a few shelters and services for men; why would it need any at all for women and children?
By 1976, Dr. Maz had seen enough. That’s when she started House of Ruth.
House of Ruth’s first “home” was a 19-room rowhouse on Massachusetts Avenue, rented with donations collected at the last minute from local churches. It had no kitchen. The owner had taken everything in her move, even the light bulbs. The only livable “bedroom” was the unfinished basement floor, covered with mattresses and blankets given by Little Sisters of the Poor. But as soon as the doors were open, women came homeless, hungry, lonely, sometimes with children, too often with the graphic scars of abuse. For them, compared to concrete sidewalks in January, this shell of a house was lavish. And safe.
House of Ruth’s “grand opening” in 1976 was attended by many dignitaries including Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Benita Washington, wife of District of Columbia Mayor Walter Washington.
ESTABLISHING A MISSION: MORE THAN A BED AND A MEAL
For 6 months, enthusiastic volunteers from all over the city scrubbed, hammered, and donated essentials until House of Ruth was ready for a ribbon-cutting ceremony in June. Now House of Ruth could really get to work. As we evaluated what was needed and how to accomplish it, our mission emerged. We knew from day one that women in crisis needed a whole lot more than an overnight stay and a bag full of groceries. House of Ruth worked to equip them for independence. Volunteer counselors linked women to schools, health care, and legal services along with food and clothing. Corporations like IBM provided office training at the shelter. Daily routines instilled the basics–cooking dinner, answering the house phone, writing articles for the newsletter. Most important, each woman was recognized as an individual and treated with honor.
“No one keeps a record on each of Washington’s shelters to find out how many of the … people they receive are helped back into productive lives. If records were kept, many of the city’s homeless advocates and elected officials say, the standard would be set by the 10-year-old House of Ruth. Its service in the recovery of lost lives is an enviable one.”
-The Washington Post Editorial, “Recovery of Lost Lives,” 11/1986
In 1977, House of Ruth extended a hand to women and children fleeing abuse with a separate home for their special needs. “The Annex,” as it was called, had only 3 bedrooms but sheltered 8 women and 12-15 children every night. Counselors there were equipped to address the many legal, health, and emotional issues surrounding abuse. A secret address kept the women safer than they could be at the main site. Our arms opened even wider in 1978. We started an emergency shelter for 69 women (84 women today) at the former Madison Elementary School, offering recovery groups, on-site medical and mental health care, and counseling.
House of Ruth’s original shelter became Unity Inn, Washington’s first transitional housing program for women of all ages who were homeless. Thirty women worked with staff and volunteers to save money, develop a budget, and seek permanent housing. They were referred to services around the city for their many other needs. The crisis facing women and children would never be solved if we tackled it alone. Volunteers and staff members constantly confronted the public with our mission, letting churches, clubs, businesses, and the media know that women were homeless and abused (despite the myths!) and that the community could help us help them. From the day we collected our first rent check, we counted on such assistance. But even as we were establishing ourselves as an authority on the needs of women and children in crisis, we were learning more about those needs. And at the same time, they were changing! In 1976, the average woman at House of Ruth was 54; by 1986, she was only 25. More women who came to our doors were addicted to drugs … mentally ill … pregnant. .. traumatized by a childhood of abuse or neglect. We were committed to helping these women and their children, whatever their circumstances. So we responded with changes of our own.
REFINING OUR PURPOSE: MEETING MORE NEEDS
As women came to us from increasingly diverse circumstances, we rapidly created diverse programs to help them. In 1984, we sought out women on the streets with a nightly outreach route by van, and Madison’s new “Blue Room” served women who were elderly or very ill. A year later, we began a job training program in Madison’s kitchen and opened a new domestic violence crisis shelter with ample room for 5 women and their children.
In 1986, alarmed by D.C.’s high infant mortality rate and the number of pregnant women at Madison, we opened a home just for these women and their babies. By 1989, domestic violence services included a 24-hour hotline, support groups for women in the community, and transitional apartments where women could spend 2 years preparing for independent, non-violent living.
“Something had to be done for the children. It was heartbreaking to not provide special services for them …”
-Former Executive Director Ellen Rocks
By 1990, it was obvious that the children at House of Ruth needed special care. Witnesses to violence and victims of poverty, many had severe developmental delays that had to be addressed immediately. We responded with House of Ruth’s Kidspace Child and Family Development Center, nurturing 25 preschoolers in a rented church basement. Before long we were helping their parents as well with support and referrals.
TODAY’S HOUSE OF RUTH: GROWING AND IMPROVING
With every year, we unearthed more of the roots of crisis: extreme poverty, past and present abuse, addiction, mental illness. We discovered that most of the women at House of Ruth, not just those fleeing a mate, had been abused physically, emotionally, or sexually, as had many of their children.
“We are located in such a caring community! People have demonstrated, through giving and volunteering, that they CARE about women and children in D.C.”
-Char Mollison, former president of the Board of Directors
And every year, we responded to our experience not just by growing but by improving. We trained and professionalized our staff, made our buildings more like homes, added new support groups for women and children, built a tight network of agencies across the city, and crafted more services to address employment, health, housing, self-esteem, and trauma. And since true change always took a lot of time and hard work, we encouraged the women to stay with us longer.
We are constantly reminded of the outpouring of human concern and compassion by the greater Washington area community that makes our work possible. Our success is largely contingent upon the individuals, groups, and organizations who have supported House of Ruth and nurtured its growth from its infancy to the present day.
House of Ruth in 2017 consists of 13 programs located throughout the District of Columbia. The individual “houses” that make up our “home” are similar in their goals, size, and services. The purpose of each is to address the immediate crisis of domestic violence or homelessness, provide a proper setting to ensure recovery, and help the family attain stability. By addressing the root causes of the present crisis—extreme poverty, past and present abuse, unemployment, addictions, or mental illnesses- we are able to promote positive change. More than 20 years after its inception, House of Ruth’s mission of helping women, children, and their families in greatest need build stable and independent lives-is firmly established. But we’ll keep looking for better ways to make it succeed. Just as we’ve done for the past 20 years. And we will be looking to the community to help shape its growth and, most importantly, lend a helping hand to women and children in need.
Special thanks to Catherine (Kay) O’Brien, member of the Board of Directors, for her generous contributions of time and material to this report.
“For more and more families … child care spells work and self-sufficiency. House of Ruth in opening [Kidspace] remains true to its mission-service to women and children in greatest need.”
-Speech by Marian Wright Edelman (above), 1990 opening of Kidspace