Deborah's Place is no more. It was burned out last month.
Since 1973, it provided a home environment and counseling services for battered women, divorcees, young women put out by their parents, women who had been evicted. When they left the privately run facility, many had new jobs, a new place to live and a new lease on life.
"We are devastated by the fire, but it doesn't wipe out the fact that we helped hundreds of women return to the mainstream of society. We're proud of that," said Wilma Perry Dean, the director.
Dean, a Howard graduate with a masters degree in sociology, has been Deborah's director for three years. She received a phone call early on the morning of Aug. 7 telling her that Deborah's was ablaze and that the eight residents and Deborah's outreach coordinator, Karen Blyden had been rushed to hospitals.
"I was just this side of hysteria," said Dean, "and the sight of the women's broken legs, arms and heels at the hospitals didn't help."
The women jumped two or three stories to escape the fire and the thick, deadly smoke that kept them away from collapsible fire ladders stored in the hallways. There was no fire escape. Street people from the Thomas Circle area helped rescue one woman from a burning roof. Others shouted to the women to toss out mattresses before jumping.
All the women are now out of the hospitals and have been placed in other facilities or sent to live with friends and relatives. Fire department officials said the blaze had started in the living room area, but were not certain of the cause.
"Traumatic" is how Sissel Olsen, one of the founders of Deborah's, describes the fire. "We put so much effort into our program, getting it started, nursing it and making it pay off for the women. Right now, we don't know what to do."
Deborah's must continue," said Dean. "We don't know when or where, but we know why: people need us."
Dean said efforts were under way to find a new site for Deborah's and that a fund-raising campaign would begin soon.
Nine years ago, Olsen was struck with the idea of starting a shelter for women. She took her notion to her pastor, the Rev. John Steinbruck of Luther Place Memorial Church. Steinbruck liked the idea. He and Olsen met with represenatives of eight other churches and persuaded them to financially support the project. Deborah's was allowed to use rent-free the row home at 1327 N St. NW which was owned by the church. The facility was named for a judge and prophetess of the Old Testament.
From the beginning, the residents assumed responsibility for the home's upkeep. When they found jobs, they were expected to make a weekly donation for food. A job also meant opening a savings account for room or apartment rent. And chores: cooking, dusting, sweeping, mopping. Residents could stay up to four months with month-to-month extensions. Three staff members rotated living-in at Deborah's so that one was on the premises at all times.
"We tried to create a total, real atmosphere," said Blyden. "We would assess the women's educational needs and job skills. We would prepare resumes and work out budgets with them."
Everyone was expected to work. "In the evenings, we worked out their job-hunting agenda for the following day. In the morning, we gave them carfare and off they went," said Dean.
The softening influences of a home were not neglected. "Many were deprived of affection, so we had birthday parties and celebrated Christmas," recalled Blyden.
Former residents called Dean to express their regrets and offer whatever help necessary to get Deborah's functioning again. One former resident, Margaret Lancaster, said, "What are the women going to do now? Deborah's was a beacon for women who had no place to go." Lancaster, mother of 10, became a full-time nursing student this month at the University of the District of Columbia. "Deborah's put me back on my feet," she said.
Deborah's received many of its referrals from facilities set up to provide women with overnight housing and a meal. "It was my favorite referral," recalled Sister Gertrude Coffey, administrative assistant at the House of Ruth. "They created a lovely kind of unity that guided residents to a life of independence."
Imagene Stewart, founder of the House of Imagene, stated of Deborah's: "Their in-depth counseling was their greatest asset, it produced results."