Less than three years after the group's founding with an initial investment of $1, the House of Ruth opened its seventh and by far largest facility for homeless and battered women yesterday in an abandoned schoolhouse at 10th and G streets NE.
The new Madison Center, billed as "the nation's first multiservice center for women," will house 65 women, dormitory-style, and will offer a walk-in counseling service along with discussion groups and classes in everything from assertiveness to dressmaking.
Besides the usual cutting of ribbon and sipping of coffee, yesterday's dedication was celebrated with a series of testimonials from "successful graduates" of House of Ruth programs.
The House of Ruth had provided a "safe harbor... a haven in which I could determine my short-term needs and my long-term objectives," said a 28-year-old woman named Lauren who asked not to have her last name used.
"I've been exposed to domestic violence all my life," she said. "My parents were always beating on each other and the children were occasionally involved. I got married in 1969 (at 18) and realized I had stepped into the same kind of situation."
The marriage lasted eight years. "The last five or six years were the roughest," she said. "... I didn't think I had a place to go. My mother having been a battered woman who chose to live with the situation, I didn't think I could go there."
She finally left her husband in January 1978. "He was just coming home after being out all night... He said 'Don't make me get violent' with this fire in his eye and I knew what was coming. I was told to leave, and I left with about $9. He stripped me of my checking account, my credit cards, my car, all means of financially supporting myself."
Lauren went to the House of Ruth headquarters at 459 Massachusetts Ave. NW -- she had heard about the shelter on the radio -- and three weeks later she found a job as a housekeeper for a family in Silver Spring.
Today she runs discussion groups for other battered women. "It takes a battered woman to know a battered woman," she said. And she has just put down a deposit on a new car.
"I'm in the process of building my life over from ground zero," she said.
Dolores Scott took her three children on a shopping trip in October 1977 and never returned home. "If I had told him that I was leaving, I don't believe I would have made it out of that house," she said. "Once he slapped me upside of my head and my ear propped like you're on an airplane. I never could hear anything for weeks after."
She went to the hospital on occasions, said Scott, "but I always made up a story."
Scott "found a sisterhood that I had never found before" at the House of Ruth, she said. "Nobody would put nobody down. Everybody was there for the same reason."
"It's a place where people work very hard -- it's really not a place for game players," said Veronica Maz, a former sociology teacher at Georgetown University who left teaching nine years ago to work with Washington's homeless and hungry women.
Maz's first operation, started in 1969, was a soup kitchen on North Capitol Street called SOME -- So Others May Eat. She started the House of Ruth in 1976 by putting down a $1 deposit to rent an old roominghouse near Fifth Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW.
"The public doesn't realize the need for (shelters) for women," Maz said yesterday. "They always think it's the women's fault. They must be drunk. They must be drug addicts. You (men) were always taken care of."
In fact, said Maz, many House of Ruth residents are well-educated and capable women. "They all have one thing in common," she said. "They don't know how to ask for what they want."
Last year the House of Ruth, with six operating facilities across the city, spent $149,000 virtually all raised from small private contributions, according to Maz.
Most of the women who come to the House of Ruth are in the "homeless and destitute" rather than the "battered and abused" category, Maz said. And more than half of the battered women, she added, leave within a week.
"We have failures every day," she said.
The House of Ruth came under fire last February when it started evicting women during the daytime hours in an effort to "shake people up."
"We've had people come here and stay here all day, who wouldn't go out and look for work," Maz said at the time.
But the new center, with its dormitories upstairs and its offices, recreation rooms and discussion rooms downstairs, will not have to order anyone out, Maz said yesterday.
The House of Ruth and the city's Department of Human Resources are close to agreement on a contract for the sheltering of homeless women, a DHR official disclosed during the dedication. The House of Ruth has asked for $10 per resident per day.
"The bed was beautiful, the matterss was beautiful," said Barbara Strickland, who became homeless recently with the death of the 97-year-old man she had taken care of and lived with.
Maz said she had bought the mattresses for $12 each through a catalogue from the state of New Hampshire.
The city has rented the Madison School to the House of Ruth for $1 a year.