Walk with Me. Talk with Me.

St. Anthony Shrine, located in downtown Boston, serves homeless women in a space that is safe, private, and separate from any male presence.

St. Anthony Shrine, located in downtown Boston, serves homeless women in a space that is safe, private, and separate from any male presence. Given that substance abuse and the opioid crisis are raging and that homeless women are the most vulnerable group for assault, abuse, prostitution, and sex trafficking, the Shrine opened the Women’s Clinic. It serves these women’s complex health needs.

CCF staff sat down with Fr. Tom Conway, Executive Director at St. Anthony Shrine, and Mary Ann Ponti, Director of Outreach and Community Engagement, to learn first-hand about the Women’s Clinic and its important work.

Walk with Me. Talk with Me.

Amy was sitting on the ground with her back up against the hard, cold brick. She stared at her shadow, outlining it repeatedly with her foot. With her history of substance abuse, she had lived on the streets for a long time. No one could remember first seeing Amy, but everyone knew her. Ever since she was found passed out, beaten, and bloodied on the intersection of Chauncy and Bedford St., word spread fast. “This one’s on borrowed time.”

Amy is a fictional character, but her situation is very real. The manifestation of the opioid crisis is on full display in Boston communities as women’s addictions, lack of housing, and economic instability coerces them into the sex trafficking trade. Traffickers seek out women like Amy (potential victims living in unstable conditions) and use force, fraud, and coercion to control them and abuse them.

Enter Mary Ann Ponti.

Director of Outreach and Community Engagement at St. Anthony’s Shrine’s Women’s Center, Mary Ann works triage on the streets. Every day, she walks the streets of Boston’s Downtown Crossing and looks for women who have been abused, exploited, or trafficked and invites them into conversation and- if they’re willing- into the Clinic.

“Everyone here has a heartbreaking story.  Everybody is in crisis.”

Getting women to follow her back to the Clinic is a challenge, one that requires both time and trust. Mary Ann works diligently to establish credibility and relationship. This is not easy, but her unique background has equipped her with the tools and tactics to gain ground with even the most suspicious client.

Prior to hitting the streets in outreach service, Mary Ann spent 10 years in New York City on Wall Steet working in the bond market. This previous experience has given her keen insight into the ways of all people- and has revealed that we are all more alike than different. “People are the same everywhere,” she reflects. “Think of a Wall Steet trading floor and the floor of a shelter like Pine Street Inn. In both places, you have leaders and followers. In both places, you see mental health disorders and substance abuse. Both places have a chaotic energy.”

After the 2008 financial crisis, Mary Ann moved to Boston and immersed herself in outreach. Her education and experience as a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor help her navigate the channels of clients’ lives. She relies on a common-sense approach to act quickly and efficiently when faced with an urgent issue. “If a girl comes into the Clinic who has just had the daylights beat out of her and a guy is trying to hurt her, I want to be able to put her in a hotel now. I can’t wait weeks or months and get tossed through bureaucratic channels. I can do things that make sense, and I can do them immediately, which makes a dramatic impact in bettering a woman’s life.”

“What is Your Happiness?”

To get women into the Clinic requires a special finesse and, frankly, something more than conversational pleasantries.   

“One big draw is that we have a shower,” says Mary Ann. “Women living on the street don’t have access to a shower. Here, they can come in and shut the door, which means that they have privacy. Privacy is a luxury. We use a blue light monitor so that if a client doesn’t move for two minutes, a light and an alarm will alert us. This is how we prevent overdoses. We have never had a fatal overdose here… ever.”

Ranking closely behind the allure of a hot shower is the draw of solidarity. The Clinic provides a room where women can simply be together. “We bring dinner down and we all eat together,” says Mary Ann. “Then we’ll pick a topic like, ‘What is your happiness?’ or ‘What does anxiety feel like?’ and have a casual group chat. Again, we’re always trying to build rapport and trust.”

To do so, Mary Ann cashes in on her familiarity on the streets. The homeless are her neighbors; they know her and she knows them. She is intent on building solid relationships with them and also focuses on developing relationships with the Boston Police Department, knowing that the two groups can benefit one another. “With 70% of street crimes, a homeless person is either a victim, a perpetrator, or a witness to a crime,” states Mary Ann. “Thus, a partnership between police and the homeless offers an important collaboration. Police need to learn to think like a social worker. And the best clinicians are social workers or mental health clinicians who understand the police’s point of view.”

Doing the best for people by their standards is integral to the work of the Clinic. If Mary Ann can get them in the door, there’s a better chance that women can be connected to services or to a shelter- and that means there’s a better chance that they can be connected to hope.

We live the Franciscan mission at the Shrine and the Franciscan way is to be humble. So we don’t brag about this organization but, at the same time, there’s no denying that Mary Ann is an absolute heroine who perpetuates St. Anthony Shrine’s mission every day- welcoming all people through prayer and outreach.”

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