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A place of hospitality and hope

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September 9, 2011

By Eileen Connelly, OSU
CATHEDRAL DEANERY —  Behind a plain blue steel door off an alley in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine, God’s unconditional love abounds. Once inside Tamar’s Place, women struggling within a lifestyle of prostitution and chemical dependency find a place of hospitality and respect and a host of resources to help them move in a new direction if they so desire.


Charlotte Zureick, left, a social worker who volunteers at Tamar’s Place, poses with Franciscan Sister of the Poor Grace Miriam Pleiman, director. (Courtesy photo)

A ministry of the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor, Tamar’s Place was founded in June 2010, and is named for the Tamar of Scripture (Genesis 38), who became a prostitute to claim her rights. Her story echoes that of many women today who become prostitutes as a means to an end, explained Sister Grace Miriam Pleiman, director of Tamar’s Place.


“Our mission is to provide a safe, nonjudgmental and healing place for women struggling in that lifestyle,”  she said.


With a background as a psychiatric nurse and 30 years of experience working with the homeless on the streets of New York, Sister Grace in uniquely qualified to reach out to the women and is thrilled her congregation chose to sponsor the ministry.


“There’s nothing in Cincinnati to meet this need,” she said. “There are places the homeless and the poor can go for assistance, but nothing specifically for women living a lifestyle of prostitution.”


Tamar’s Place is staffed by a small group of caring volunteers, including Sister Mary Lawrence Vanderburg. She recalls that when the leadership of her congregation first asked her to become involved with the ministry, she was “enthusiastic, but full of trepidation. I wondered what I was getting myself into,” she admitted. “Prostitution was repulsive to me.” 


“Now I don’t even think about it. I just see the women,” she added.


After the ministry was established, the Sisters and volunteers began passing out bottles of water (with Tamar’s Place cards affixed to them) to the women on the streets to encourage them to visit. When the first women came, it was to use the restroom or request something to eat or drink, before quickly leaving again. Realizing no one at Tamar’s Place would judge or pressure them, the women began staying longer and telling others about their positive experience.


Most of the women arrive thin and unkempt, said Sister Grace. They typically range in age from their early 20s to mid-40s. Most have children who are not in their custody. A majority are homeless and sleep in abandoned buildings. Many have post-traumatic stress disorder, the result of being physically abused. Mental illness, such as anxiety or depression, is common, and the women cover it with drugs.


“Almost all of them have histories of childhood abuse, neglect or abandonment to one degree or another,” Sister Grace said. “Some were introduced to drugs at an early age. As a result, many know no other lifestyle.”


Upon entering Tamar’s Place, a woman is welcomed into a large room where tables and chairs, books, posters on the walls and a refrigerator contribute to the homey atmosphere. During their visits, the women are offered juice, milk, coffee, fresh fruit and bagels with cream cheese. They have the opportunity to wash up and are given clean clothes if needed. They are invited to engage in conversation if desired. Once a week, art therapist Sarah Hellman offers the women the chance to express themselves through painting.


“We give them a place that’s safe,” Sister Grace said. “We just listen and try to develop a relationship with them. All of these activities are seen as a way of building and strengthening their self-esteem and emotional stability.”


Some women stay just a short time. Others linger and share their stories. Sister Grace has heard of the daily physical and emotional pain the women experience on the streets. They speak of the shame and guilt their lifestyles have brought upon themselves and their families. Some discuss their inability to break away from their drug habits and abusive relationships that keep them trapped in spite of their desire to change.


“They would gladly give up this lifestyle were it not for the compulsive, consuming need for the drug and their attachments to boyfriends or pimps who are often abusive,” Sister Grace said. “This is why Tamar’s Place is such a haven for them to get away from the streets and pimps for a brief period of time. I believe that building trusting relationships with these women is the single most compelling gift we can offer to them toward recovering and dignity.”


In its first year, Sister Grace said, Tamar’s Place has seen more than 70 clients, who have made in excess of 500 visits. When ready, some of the clients have been referred to Off the Streets (OTS), a comprehensive program of recovery through which women are able to become productive citizens in the community by learning new skills and job readiness to prepare them to live independently.


Another important aspect of Sister Grace’s ministry involves visiting the women in jail and advocating for them in court. “When they are arrested for soliciting on the streets, it is of the utmost importance to visit them in jail. This is done in order to maintain a connection and determine if they are sufficiently prepared to enter OTS,” she explained. “If so, a call is placed to OTS for assessment/referral. Next, we confer with the lawyer, who, in turn, negotiates with the judge and, of course, the judge has the final word on the sentencing.”


Sister Grace emphasized that it has to the individual’s choice to take that next step, saying “If they want to change, we’ll help them.” 


One woman who was ready to make that change was Carolyn (last name withheld for privacy reasons), who spent 10 years on the streets and was in out and out of jail fives times on charges of assault and possession. The mother of two, Carolyn recalled that her addiction to crack was “so powerful I didn’t  think of my kids. I was always homeless. My life was one trick after another. My mind was always on drugs. I never thought I’d be normal again.”


It was the kindness of a stranger that led her to seek assistance. The man, whose daughter’s lifestyle of drugs and prostitution ultimately led to her death, gave Carolyn a flier for Off the Streets. She graduated from the program in November 2009 and is now a volunteer at Tamar’s Place.


“What I love about this place is that we don’t force the women to get clean. We plant the seed that gives them hope,” she said.


On a humid morning in August, Carolyn, bearing cold bottles of water and information about Tamar’s Place, walked several blocks through OTR, hoping to reach out to any woman in need. “We do this when there are enough volunteers available, since some women are afraid to come to us,” she explained.


She offered one young woman, barely out of her teens, some water and briefly explained the ministry’s services. She encouraged her to visit and admonished her to “stay safe.”


“I’ve never seen her before. She’s new to the streets,” Carolyn said. “You can tell because she’s clean and healthy. Within a month or two on the streets, the women get skinnier and they’re not clean any more. They get sores on them. You can see what life on the streets has done to them.”


“Carolyn’s one of our best advocates,” Sister Grace said. “She knows how to reach the women. She’s been there.”


They’re not able to reach every woman who passes through the blue steel door, but for Sister Grace, each woman’s life they are able to touch is a blessing.


She shared a letter written by client who was referred to OTS. It reads in part: “You never gave up on me. You stuck with me. and I can’t express how thank I am for you and Tamar. You showed me what true care and concern was when everyone else gave up on me. I believe you are my angel. Because of you, I’m starting to love myself. So, by the grace of God, I will make it this time. And I hope someday I will make a difference in someone’s life, just as you have done for me.”


Tamar’s Place relies on donations to continue its ministry, including funding for rent, education and training for the recovering women,  toiletries, food and other items. For more information about supporting Tamar’s Place, call Sister Grace at 513-504-1413. 



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