Hope in the Midst of Despair…

“Jesus is my hope. He is the only one who loves me just as I am.” Nonica said this as a matter of fact. When a person simply states a fact -- no emphasis, no grandstanding -- you know it’s the simple truth. Even writing the words now, I feel it. Nonica was a male prostitute, a cross-dresser, and until recently, one of our strongest supporters. But I am getting ahead of myself…

Let me introduce you to one of the roughest areas of Cincinnati, Ohio. If truth be told, it is a red light district, riddled with drugs and crime. Yet, in its midst, you’ll find a small room tucked into a back alley where area prostitutes find hope, acceptance and even warmth: Tamar’s Place.

Having said this, it is necessary to add that, while staff and volunteers give, they also receive: every one of them will tell you without hesitation, that Tamar’s guests give them something very special, which doesn’t mean necessarily that the women will – or can -- leave ‘the life.’

A Tamar’s Place volunteer says, “…most of the ladies won’t make it: they will never escape the life.” But Sr. Grace Miriam Pleiman, Tamar Place’s director, quickly adds, “However, all of the women are very spiritual. In fact, they are more intensely spiritual than most of the population. God is a big part of their lives.” The degrading circumstances in which they find themselves – many from birth onward – strip them down to the essentials. And above all, and despite all, God is one of their essentials – often far more real to these women than to their comfortable, educated and respectable sisters.“I don’t know if I have the words to tell you what it’s like to be with them,” said Charlotte Zureick, a volunteer who is studying for a Masters in Social Work from the University of Cincinnati.

“Maybe if I tell you about Nonica, you’ll understand. She was one of the ladies who visited us almost every day. In fact, Nonica took it upon herself to spread the word on the street that Tamar’s Place was a safe place. She helped more than anyone else to overcome the distrust that really was an issue when we first opened our doors. Nonica was homeless, but that doesn’t mean she was loveless: all the other ladies loved Nonica. Even her mother loved her, although she insisted on calling Nonica by the name she gave her at birth: Greg. Nonica was born male, but her essence was female. Nonetheless, ‘when I’m with mom, I’m a boy,’ Nonica would say.“At any rate, in the early days of Tamar Place, volunteers went out two by two to try to connect with the ladies on the street. One day when we were short of help, I decided to go out alone. I wasn’t out there very long before a man approached me: he was rough – and very persistent. I don’t know what would have happened if Nonica had not ‘appeared.’ She sent him off quickly – and with no nonsense. She then escorted me back to Tamar’s Place. This is just the way Nonica is – was – she looked after everyone. She was shot and killed on the very spot where she rescued me…we don’t know why.

Charlotte e Sr. Grace Miriam vicino al memoriale di Nonica a Casa di Tamara

But all the ladies came in crying. One of the ladies, Kim, called her ‘My baby’ and said ‘It don’t feel safe out there anymore without Nonica!’ “After the funeral, Nonica’s mother came to see Tamar’s Place because ‘that’s all Greg talked about when he came to see me.’ The ladies miss her. We miss her. So we created a little shrine for her here. We still feel her presence…” her voice trailed off. Life expectancy for prostitutes is low – 5 to 7 years after ‘going on the streets’ most are dead, and on average, a prostitute will not live past his or her early thirties.About 40% of prostitutes were children who were illegally forced into prostitution through human trafficking, or were teenage runaways. Many runaways fled because their homes were abusive, poor, or their parents did not approve of them. 60% percent of children who run away from home become prostitutes to survive.

“Prostitution is not a moral issue,” said Karen Skillman, an SFP Associate who is also a clinical counselor with an extensive background in addictions counseling. “By and large, the women – perhaps I should say, young girls -- are forced into it. It is part of a vicious cycle of injustice and addiction. The women are addicted to drugs, to alcohol, to their pimps, to sex, to shoplifting…many have PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). They have so much to struggle with…They come in here, and they are miserable. They suffer on the streets from cold (or
heat), from hunger and fear (many of them have been physically attacked by their ‘boyfriends’ who take their money and often abuse them), and the very terrible pain of withdrawal from drugs…and they suffer from the contempt of others, from abandonment, from chronic mental illness, from sleep deprivation…You have no idea how much they suffer.”

“Here at Tamar‘s Place, we try to follow their needs,” adds Sr. Grace. “First and foremost, they need safety, commiseration, respect…something to eat and drink. Many are so frightened that they actually have to get high even to come in here. We offer them welcome… and hospitality. Have you any idea how rare it is for them to be welcomed anywhere? Depending upon what they want or need, we refer them to Franciscan Haircuts from the Heart for hair care, to Our Daily Bread for food, to St. John’s Social Service Center for clothing, to Off the Streets if they are ready to leave ‘the life,’ and many other agencies. Yet there is so much more that they need,” she sighs.

“We also advocate for them in the courts, and visit them when they are in jail…” “I didn’t mind jail,” Carol D., another volunteer, chimed in. Carol is a former prostitute and recovering drug user who spent a lot of time in jail before she finally was ready to seek treatment. “I got three hots and a cot.” On the street, she would roam for days without sleep or food. One rapist held a knife to her throat, and kicked her unconscious with steel-toed boots.

“I know for a fact these women are abused,” Sr. Adelaide Link said, “Just last Friday, one of the women, Jessica, was talking to me – pouring her heart out – when another prostitute rushed in and interrupted her. ‘Hurry,’ she said. ‘Duwayne wants you Now!’ This lady was all black and blue – and she didn’t want this to happen to Jessica too!” “Plenty of times I could have died,” Carol said. “But I jumped in cars and I brushed it off because I thought I was unworthy, maybe even to live. All the ladies feel worthless, like they deserve what they get.” A graduate of “Off the Streets” and “IKRON” (Integration of Knowledge and Resources for Occupational Needs) – two of the agencies to which Tamar’s Place refers women – she now lives in a small apartment, works – and volunteers so she can help others. After 10 years on the streets, there isn’t much she hasn’t seen – and not much she doesn’t know. Her help is invaluable.

“I have my own place now,” Carol continues. “At night, when you’re ready to go to sleep and your blankets smell like Gain™, and you remember when you were walking around freezing and you couldn’t sleep because of the drugs ... you just feel so safe.” For now, she is grateful for the small things. “Tamar ‘s Place is like my own personal church,” she says. “It lifts me up and makes me feel like I’m not alone ...When you’re out there using, you don’t have a life. I love my life today. I feel refreshed. I feel brand new.

”Sr. Mary Lawrence Vanderburg, another volunteer, said “Just yesterday Carol inspired me all over again. She has so little, but she is both generous and content with what she has…Carol told me about a minor catastrophe she experienced: she broke a plate. That may not seem like much, but when you have only 3 plates and you break one, it’s a lot! As we were talking, I told her, ‘I am so proud to know you. You have only two plates, and yet you are happy with what you have…This is what I mean when I say that these women give so much…There is no envy, no sense of entitlement, no jealousy. There is only gratitude.”

Carolyn Karen Sarah

A young artist, Sarah Hellmann, who is working on her Doctorate at the University, also volunteers. She started a nonprofit group called “Art is for All People,” and is seeking a grant to help her bring art to the people. Her hope in working at Tamar‘s Place is to use art as a way for the women to express themselves, restore their dignity and promote a healthy self-image. She comes to Tamar’s Place every week, and paints with the women – some of whom are working together to create a painting filled with butterflies...

The brain child of Estelle McNair (Executive Director of Franciscan Haircuts from the Heart) and supported by Sr. Joanne Schuster, Tamar’s Place was started only a year ago. It grew out of the fact that many of the ladies of the street came into Stop AIDs, where Estelle used to work, for a safe place to sit and drink some coffee. So many, indeed, that it became necessary to stop offering so much hospitality. From that time onward, Estelle dreamed of providing a safe, welcoming place for the ladies. Eventually, she shared it with Sr. Joanne. Soon Estelle was invited to St. Clare Convent to tell the other Franciscan Sisters of the Poor and their Associates about her dream. When Estelle finished talking, they voted overwhelmingly to support Tamar’s Place, commenting that, “… it was one of Mother Frances Schervier’s first ministries.” A number of them volunteered to help on the spot.

It’s early days yet, but Tamar’s Place has opened its door…and its presence is felt and needed and definitely appreciated. One of the ladies who is now in the “Off the Streets” program wrote this note to Sr. Grace: “Dear Sister Grace, I just want to let you know how much you have helped me. I’m a true believer that everything happens for a reason. And I truly believe you and Tamar have saved my life. You never gave up on me. You stuck with me and I can’t express enough how thankful I am for you and Tamar. You kept trying to help me no matter what I was doing on the streets. You fed me when I was hungry.

You gave me a safe place to hang out at. You helped me with clothing when I had nothing to wear. You showed me what true care and concern was when everyone else gave up on me. And actually, I gave up on myself, but you kept showing up to help me. I believe you are my angel. Because of you, I’m starting to love myself. You helped me get in Off the Streets program and I truly love it here. 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 done for me. Sincerely, C.T. May, 2011”

For those who cannot find the wherewithal to leave the streets, Tamar’s Place represents a refuge and a respite. For those who can find the inner courage,Tamar’s Place offers hope – and a willing hand up to a new life. Tamar’s Place is new and young, but still has much to celebrate!


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