Life on the Rebound

Emma Norton Services Helps Women Find a New Life in St. Paul, Minn.

Life on the Rebound
Verneita Madden sews uniforms for schoolgirls in Sierra Leone in her apartment at Emma Norton Services in St. Paul, Minn.

For the 17 years she was abused by her husband, Natalie Streiff kept thinking it would someday get better. When it didn’t, she started using alcohol to numb the pain. Then she added pills.

A deep depression welled up within her, eventually landing her in the hospital for a month. In sorting out her addictions, she finally came to the realization that she didn’t have to live with the man who was hurting her. Yet he had complete control of family finances. The house was in his name. Ms. Streiff had worked as a lab tech, but lost that job when her depression took hold. So she ended up on the streets, sober for a while and then relapsing. While living in a shelter, she drove her car while drunk and seriously injured a woman and girl.

Ms. Strieff went to prison. When she got out, she was sober but homeless. Her probation officer helped her find a place to live at Emma Norton Services, a St. Paul, Minn., program for women who are homeless and face mental health or substance abuse challenges.

It changed her life.

“Being here helped me to get real, to be honest about what was happening in my life. They helped me to see that I didn’t have to do it all on my own, that I could get help,” Ms. Streiff, 42, told response.

“Somewhere in my life I’d learned that I had to be strong, to be Superwoman,” she said. “At Emma Norton I learned to ask for the help I need. I’ve gained a lot of self-esteem, and I don’t have to settle for any man who’s going to abuse me. I’m capable of getting back to work. I can do anything, but I can’t do anything by myself. I need help. Ultimately it’s God who’s helping me, and I’m grateful. I didn’t feel worthy of that before, but now I do.”

Emma Norton Services is housed in a brick building quietly tucked into the urban landscape of St. Paul, and the 50 women who live there are, like Ms. Streiff, somewhere on the road to wholeness. It was founded in 1917 by the Woman’s Home Missionary Society as the Methodist Girls Club, a place where young women from the countryside could live when they migrated to the city to work. The ministry was funded by Emma Norton, a wealthy  Methodist women’s leader.

As the ministry changed in the 20th century, it took Ms. Norton’s name and  remain closely tied to United Methodist Women, which owns the property, pays its insurance and conducts regular training for its directors and staff. The result is a refuge for women and families who have been through horrific experiences. For most, like Ms. Streiff, it’s the beginning of a new life.

Unable to continue in the medical field because of her criminal record, Ms. Streiff is now training for office work. She’s on a waiting list for an apartment of her own. And she’s part of a local program called “You Be the Change,” which gets her involved in public policy advocacy for homeless women.

Ready for the challenge

Verneita Madden came to Emma Norton after a childhood of sexual abuse and adult years plagued by substance abuse, prostitution and homelessness. Her son Darious was killed in gang violence in Detroit, thrusting Ms. Madden into chronic depression. Yet after her daughter moved into Emma Norton Services and turned her life around–she’d faced similar challenges — Ms. Madden gave it a try herself. She has flourished.

“I used to get angry and fight a lot, but I’ve learned here how to express myself,” she told response. “I get respect here and positive feedback, and it’s bringing out the best in me. I’ve got confidence in myself, something I’ve never had before. I’m ready to confront the challenges in the next part of my journey.”

Ms. Madden’s healing process also involves service to others. She volunteers at a downtown clinic, reading to children as they and their families wait for the doctor. She works with You Be the Change in several advocacy efforts, including lobbying for better state attention to women drug addicts. She sews school uniforms for girls in Sierra Leone, hundreds of them, as part of a mission project in that African nation.

Ms. Madden, 54, learned about the opportunity to sew the uniforms because she’s the chair of the local  United Methodist Women. Composed of women living at Emma Norton Services, a handful of alumnae and a few United Methodist Women leaders from nearby churches, the group meets Sunday afternoons and resembles many other local United Methodist Women gatherings. The women reflect together on a reading, they do crafts, they plan a Mothers’ Day tea complete with fancy hats, they sponsor baby showers for residents who are pregnant, and they’re planting an herb garden at the residence. Ms. Madden and several others participated in the summer School of Christian Mission at Saint John’s University in Collegeville.

“In my addiction I was doing everything wrong, and now I can do something right,” Ms. Madden said. “I’m thankful for their confidence in me, and the opportunity to make someone else happy while being happy myself.”

‘We’re all alike’

The connection between United Methodist Women and Emma Norton Services also provides a corps of volunteers to keep the critical ministry functioning.

Vivian LaRock is one of them. A member of United Methodist Women at Arlington Hills United Methodist Church in Maplewood, Ms. LaRock was an emergency room nurse until she retired three years ago. In her hospital work she often encountered the homeless, as emergency rooms are often called to provide care to the homeless and others with no insurance.

“Some of my friends are leery of my working here with once homeless women.” she said. “But working in the ER all those years blunted any fears. The women are not very different from me. By the grace of God I don’t have a mental illness. And people are people. No matter what ethnic background or life experience, people can be talking and break out in giggling. We’re all alike.”

Emma’s Place

Toya Reynolds knows well the thin line that separates “normal” women from homeless ones. She had a steady job and was raising her five children when the economy turned sour, and her hours were cut. Then she couldn’t afford child care. Eventually she lost her job entirely, and soon she was on the streets. She lived in a shelter in Minneapolis with her three youngest children, but their cramped living quarters made life stressful. Finally she heard of Emma’s Place, another ministry run by Emma Norton Services. Located outside St. Paul, it’s a collection of 13 suburban townhouses providing semi-permanent housing to single parents with three or more children who are facing the same challenges as women at the residence.

“We’re all normal people. We’ve just had some problems,” said Ms. Reynolds, 36.

Emma’s Place provides a variety of support to the families, including tutoring and other activities for the children and classes on parenting and money management for parents.

“Now that we’re in a stable place, my kids are OK,” Ms. Reynolds said. “Each has their own space, so there’s no more stress. We’re on the right track. I’m going to school, getting some more skills. We have a future we didn’t have before.”

Like mothers and sisters

The women served by Emma Norton Services are not unusual, said Roxanne Condon, the agency’s executive director. “The women who come here are like our mothers and sisters and cousins and the people we went to school with. They’re really no different, but they’ve had some extra challenges in their lives,” she told response.

About three-quarters of the residents have a serious mental illness. A similar number are troubled by drug and alcohol addiction, and many have both. Some of that is simply bad luck with DNA, Ms. Condon says, yet a majority has also suffered from domestic violence, and many were sexually abused as children. If they have a family, it’s not healthy. “Many have parents or children or grandchildren, but they’ve ended up at a place where no one will let them in at the end of the day. So we provide them a safe place to be, where they can start to get their feet under them,” she said.

A common motif in the women’s lives is untreated — or improperly treated — mental illness, Ms. Condon says. “A lot of people abuse alcohol and drugs because they have an untreated mental illness, and they self-medicate. If we can get the mental health part right, it frequently helps people stop using drugs and alcohol,” she said.

Poor women have a hard time seeing psychiatrists in the first place, but even if they do get seen, there are other problems. Mismanaged medication — patients not taking their meds or not having the correct ones — is the main cause of psychiatric hospitalizations, Ms. Condon says. That situation is provoked by a shortage of psychiatrists. Patients often get two-minute office visits where the doctor just asks if everything is OK and then signs off on continuing the medication. There’s no time to really investigate what’s going on in the patient’s life and if the description of her condition is accurate. And when homeless women are prescribed drugs to treat their illness, where do they store their meds?

At Emma Norton Services, each wom-an’s case manager ensures that health care professionals know what’s going on in their patients’ lives, and the structured environment of the residence helps ensure compliance with medication regimens.

Another element of moving women toward a stable life beyond Emma Norton is finding employment. That’s not an easy task in a troubled economy, and even more challenging for women who’ve been homeless.

Often agencies will focus on resume writing or job interview skills, but that won’t solve the problem.

“The problem isn’t her resume or job interview,” Ms. Condon said. “It’s her lack of a work history. It’s the fact that she’s unlikely to show up every day and unlikely to tolerate job stress. It’s the fact that she’s scared to death she’s going to fail, because she’s failed every other time. That’s the problem, and there are no support services. If people could be competitively employed and succeed, they already would be.”

So Emma Norton is looking at ways of creating “supported employment,” small businesses where the jobs match the skills and deficits of the employees. “We’re talking about jobs where it doesn’t matter if you behave oddly once in a while because there is supervision by people who understand,” Ms Condon said.

All that costs money, and in these days of tight government budgets, spending on helping women get out of poverty is harder than ever to come by. Government spending on the poor is often the first to get cut.

“It’s low-hanging fruit to pick on people with no resources, with no paid lobbyists, who don’t make big campaign contributions. So the homeless are invisible people,” Ms. Condon said.

For Sharry Adams, program director at Emma Norton Services, misunderstandings about homelessness translate into misdirected public policies.

“Many in society think those people just ought to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, get a job and get on with life. They shouldn’t need all this support. So programs that support the homeless are easy to cut,” Ms. Adams said. “But if you’re battling mental health issues like depression, where you don’t want to get out of bed, or you’ve had a psychotic break and are hearing voices, it’s tough to get up and go out and work eight hours. It’s hard to battle all this internal stuff and still maintain a healthy relationship with the world.”

In many cases, Ms. Adams says, the women survived for years despite all the demons they faced. Yet they’re often thrust into homelessness by overwhelming circumstances.

“The women we work with aren’t lazy, but they are often traumatized,” she said. “More than 70 percent of our women have experienced some sort of domestic violence. Yet when they flee that destructive relationship they often are left with no resources as they maneuver their life. A woman may have been in a three-bedroom suburban home before with her husband who was abusing her. All her resources are tied to that house. Now she doesn’t have that. What does she do?”

Ms. Adams contrasts her own life growing up in Minneapolis.

“My mother was a single mom. It was the whole community that looked out for us,” she said. “But the links that tie homeless women to community have been so frayed and shattered that they need to construct a whole new community of support if they’re going to function.”

Street life

Helen Smith learned the importance of community the hard way. Growing up in Chicago, her single mother worked full time, leaving Ms. Smith at home with strict instructions not to go outside. She peered through her window “at the dope fiends, alcoholics and pimps who I, at age 10, thought were exciting. I was playing with dolls. My mom wasn’t there to tell me she loved me, and the dolls weren’t doing it for me anymore, so I went outside to get pregnant,” she told response.

Before long, her two children were grown, and she started using “heroin, crack, alcohol and some pills I can’t remember,” and working as a prostitute. Yet Ms. Smith, 52, knew there was a community for her somewhere; she just had to find it. She heard about Emma Norton Services, got herself clean and sober, and entered the residence in March. She’s turning her life around.

“I’ve been blessed to have my own room, to go to meetings, to go on a retreat with United Methodist Women,” she said. “When I was homeless, living on the streets was hard. I would do anything for a cup of hot soup and to take a shower. I thank God for Emma Norton. I really like it here. It saved my life.”

The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response. His blog is online at

Posted or updated: 8/31/2011 11:00:00 PM
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