- Associated Press - Monday, February 13, 2017

DALLAS (AP) - Frances Martinez crossed the group circle and, like a big sister, wrapped her arms around a crying woman’s shoulders. As the woman sobbed into a tissue, hiding her face with her hands, Martinez rubbed her back and whispered encouragement.

“We’re here. We’re united,” said Martinez, 64.

“We’re sisters.”

The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/2kUa1Rh ) reports though they treat each other as family, biologically this group of women that finds shelter each night at the Austin Street Center isn’t related.

They are young and old. Some are black, others white, a few are Hispanic.

Yet, bound by similar life experiences, they call themselves “the sisterhood.”

They’ve slept on sidewalks and under bridges, and at least one has slept in a sleeping bag behind a convenience store. They’ve carried their belongings on their backs and in plastic bags. Men have beaten them. They’ve done drugs and been locked in jail. They’ve been afraid.

They all are homeless.

February marks a year since Austin Street Center - a nonprofit emergency shelter that houses roughly one-quarter of the area’s homeless people - started its women’s day resource program with 20 women. Since then, it’s grown to include 35 women with 50 more on the waiting list.

The center was among 20 agencies receiving funds this year from The Dallas Morning News Charities campaign.

The women’s sanctuary is in a building across from the shelter on Hickory Street, where they meet daily for group discussions, music, yoga and crafts. There, their dreams written on neon-colored paper are tacked on a wall: find a house, a car and a good job; visit a nice beach and get a good tan; be a good mom; give back to church.

Predominantly a men’s shelter, women occupy only about one-quarter of Austin Street’s more than 400 beds, which are full most nights. The women’s program gives them an outlet, said Monica McGee, who leads the sisterhood and who the women affectionately call “Mrs. Monica.”

“The women didn’t have a voice. They had no one to hear them, listen to them and get them through their trauma,” said McGee.

Cindy Crain, the president and CEO of Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, said that having “a safe space for women to go and talk and get services is critically important.” Last year, the Alliance reported a 20 percent increase in the number of homeless people in Dallas and Collin counties.

In 2013, homeless women in East Fort Worth reported instances of physical and sexual violence, stalking and verbal abuse, according to a study by the University of North Texas Health and Science Center.

According to the study, one in six homeless women also reported being raped. Some women said they were choked, slapped and beaten. To protect themselves, some of them said they avoided people or found a male protector.

But McGee indicated even that option offers no guarantees.

“When you’re homeless and you’re a woman, the very people who protect you victimize you,” she said. “Women get raped under those bridges. There’s great victimization out there.

“I’ve lived it. It’s harder.”

In 1993, McGee lived under the Interstate 45 overpass - only blocks away from the shelter where she now works. She had turned to drugs to try to forget her mother’s death when she was 18 in Louisiana. During daylight, she found shelter and washed her clothes at the Day Resource Center.

“I saw too many women raped and beaten, so I acted like I was crazy so they’d leave me alone,” said McGee, who entered rehab and later received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Texas at Dallas and master’s in educational counseling from Prairie View A&M; University.

Now, she’s made a two-decade career of helping the homeless.

“I’m doing this because I’m paying it forward,” McGee told the women during a group discussion one recent morning.

But it’s not always easy. The women confessed to McGee that other women in the shelter sometimes tease them for their involvement in the program, calling them “Monica’s babies.” And at least 20 percent of women drop out and return to the streets.

Yet, many credit their recovery largely to McGee. Martinez called her an “angel.” Others lauded her as their “fairy godmother.”

Sitting in the center of the circle, McGee blushed.

“Y’all trying to make me mushy today. I don’t do mushy,” she said, calling for a group hug.

“Huggie, huggie, huggie,” shouted the women as they wrapped their arms tightly around one another, some crying, others laughing.

“We hug each other to show strength, unity, togetherness and love,” McGee explained later. “Some of them have gotten very, very close. They will be sisters when they leave here.”

That could happen soon for Martinez, who received a voucher to secure a low-income apartment.

For four months, she lived on the streets before coming to the shelter almost a year ago. Embarrassed, she didn’t tell her friends when she was evicted from her apartment and slept in alleys and on park benches.

“It was really ugly,” she said. “But I came through it.”

Now, her dream is her own place. But Martinez will never forget the sisterhood.

“I’ll still visit Mrs. Monica and bring her some tamales.”

___

Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com

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