Women at the Well
This project is well named. When I think of the Gospel story, I realize that Jesus, in that touching encounter with the woman at the well was offering her rescue, solace, dignity, a way forward and the possibility of eternal life. The Sisters of Mercy started the WOW Project to offer vulnerable women in our society a place of refuge and hope. They bought a small, run down Victorian hotel which has been beautifully restored and furnished. Situated in quiet, little Birkenhead Street, opposite Kings Cross Station,’ it is ideally placed as a drop-in centre with easy access.
I was fortunate to be part of this project from the beginning, while it was still an idea in the mind of Sr Lynda Dearlove. So, it has been exciting to see it materializing and growing in strength and scope over the last three years. It is non-residential and is specially geared for women involved in pavement culture, i.e. homeless women living on our streets who are trapped in a life of drug and alcohol addiction and prostitution. Many of these women have served prison sentences and some have been trafficked as part of the sex trade.
Who are these women? I expected them to be seductive and flashy. Far from it! Sadly, most were brought up in abusive families; 85% of them have suffered physical abuse in the homes as well as sexual and psychological abuse. The cards were stacked against them from the beginning. Is it any wonder they drop out of school and leave their abusive homes in their teens? Then having made themselves homeless, they are forced to find ways to survive on our streets and they get quickly drawn into drug and alcohol abuse. Perhaps you may have seen this story acted out dramatically by Holly in Emmerdale.
WOW is a very friendly place, more like a home, really. Here the women can relax and enjoy a variety of activities and at the same time have their basic needs met. Among the facilities area laundry, a clothing room, showers fully equipped with towels, shower gel, shampoo etc. The kitchen and dining area, offer real home cooking with soup, sandwiches and snacks available during the day and a nourishing evening meal. Ninety percent of the women have all these basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. Our Sister Nadiya was missioned at WOW for over a year and gave very generous service in many areas from the beginning. She did much to get the kitchen up and running and always produced tasty meals.
Besides these basic needs, the women have psychological, medical, accommodation, legal and other needs. Women involved in prostitution are criminalized, and having a criminal record makes it difficult for them to re-enter society. A Catholic solicitor offers his services free of charge for half a day a week to deal with any legal problems the women may have. Since January 2010, there were five paid members of staff who deal with the day to day running of the centre. They are supported by a host of volunteers. It is encouraging to see young professional people volunteering after work in the evening.
The centre could not operate without the volunteers and each volunteer brings her own gifts. Activities such as cookery, crafts, yoga, music therapy, guitar lessons, literacy classes, videos, TV, counselling, drug advice, and much more are available to the women but always by choice. There is a tastefully decorated chapel, referred to as “The Well”, where women can enjoy a quiet time and in their chaotic lives this can be a healing.
I am involved in music therapy, Tai Chi, the quiet time and staff supervision. It is very rewarding to see women developing from week to week. Sadly, this is not always the case. Sometimes it is a case of one step forward and two backwards.
Much of the work at the centre is carried out by trained social workers. Dealing with Local Councils, Housing Departments, G.Ps, Social Services, the Criminal Justice Service, Prisons, Immigration and many other agencies is very time consuming and often frustrating. Sometimes a member of the staff can spend the best part of her day accompanying a woman to a court hearing, hospital or another venue. They need the support in order to be heard and to keep them calm.
I’ve learnt so much at WOW. Knowing just how disadvantaged these women are, is a steep learning curve. In 2009, 905 of the women who use WOW exhibited symptoms of mental health. 70% had a history of involvement in street prostitution and 77% had substance misuse issues (drug and alcohol). 77% were homeless. 32% were in abusive or violent relationships. Many of the women have served prison sentences or are on ASBOS (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders).
During this year 207 women were seen at the centre and 174 of these received ongoing help. Sister Lynda, the Director, has worked very hard at networking with other organizations e.g. local police, Camden Primary Care for Homeless People, The Community Crack Intervention Team and many others. Having friends in specialist organizations is very helpful in getting women the treatment they need.
In this sketchy glimpse of the WOW Project, I have tried to give an idea of what is on offer for some of the most needy, excluded and rejected women in our society. Unfortunately, space will not permit a fuller picture. That would require case histories of the women who have had the benefit of WOW’s help.
It is a wonderful experience to see women growing in confidence, learning skills and actually changing physically when they come off drugs and have nourishing food. The best way I can end this account is to share a few of the objectives of the project:
• To provide a supportive space for vulnerable, multiple-disadvantaged women who wish to address
their needs and make choices to improve the quality of their lives.
• To challenge oppression, discrimination and prejudice, to promote equality and diversity of
opportunities and to speak up for social justice.
In conclusion, I would ask you to pray for the women and the on-going viability of the project. I would also ask you to write letters to parliament or your MP if you become aware of unjust laws that would affect these women.