When Monique Jouvenal, 46, volunteered at the House of Ruth shelter a year ago, she had high hopes. After all, the House of Ruth is the nation's oldest shelter for homeless women, and Jouvenal wanted to do all she could to help.
After being accepted as a volunteer and meeting the staff, she was assigned to work at the shelter for homeless mothers with newborn infants, one of five House of Ruth facilities in the District.
After a year in which she also served as the shelter's full-time, unpaid volunteer coordinator, Jouvenal quit, claiming the babies had become double victims -- not only of the plights of their troubled mothers, but also of what Jouvenal saw as the inefficiency and incompetence of the program designed to help them.
"I saw babies being handled . . . by other homeless women whose health and mental status we weren't sure of," said Jouvenal. "I also saw mothers, who professionals told me weren't fit, allowed to keep their babies."
While stressing that other facilities run by House of Ruth were competently managed, Jouvenal charged that the Mothers' House lacked both a structured program for the expectant mothers who stayed up to six months after giving birth, and adequate follow-up.
The House of Ruth has denied Jouvenal's allegations. Calling the Mothers' House "a wonderful facility . . . the only one like it in D.C.," Sandra Brawders, the ex-teacher who runs House of Ruth, said Jouvenal's concern stems from the difference between her socioeconomic background and that of the mothers. "There were class clashes between her and the women," said Brawders. "They are trying to work through more than being homeless and pregnant, they are also trying to gain self-esteem . . . which impacts on how much of a program they can participate in. They are not in a prison system."
Jouvenal, on the other hand, said the real problem was that "there was no program, and no regulations . . . . The women were allowed to lie around and watch television while they had not the faintest idea of how to take care of a baby. I felt they should have a Red Cross course on mothering. But they'd have rock music blaring when newborn babies were trying to sleep," she said.
Elisabeth Huguenin, president of the Coalition for the Homeless, quit her part-time job as a therapist at the House of Ruth last month, citing similar problems to those described by Jouvenal. "When I was there, there was no program going on and that was my disappointment," she said. "That's why the residents ended up watching TV all afternoon -- because nothing else was going on."
In my own visit to the Mothers' House, I did not observe the things Jouvenal mentioned. The staff told me that a program now exists -- although it seemed informal and evolving, and the house appeared to be reasonably well run. But on a short, scheduled visit, it is difficult to see very much.
Still, criticisms like those from Jouvenal and Huguenin are treading on sensitive territory, for the people who work with the homeless do some of the most difficult and thankless work in our society. Moreover, as the numbers of the homeless swell to an estimated million nationwide, only a few of the country's 2,000 shelters offer innovative programs that even attempt to go beyond a basic emergency meal and bed for the night.
Indeed, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal complimented the House of Ruth for its "long-term sanctuary and a chance at rehabilitation to those shattered not just by homelessness but also by sexual abuse, alcoholism and job loss."
But Jouvenal's insider view of the Mothers' House was different, particularly concerning the procedure for follow-up with the former residents. "One of my problems was that the mothers would come . . . and once they left, we didn't know what happened," she said. "They came from an unstructured life . . . and they were kept on that same unstructured course."
Because the Mothers' House is offered as an alternative to having the children placed in foster care and says it wants to help lower the city's high infant mortality rate, its importance as a vehicle for rehabilitating and revitalizing homeless women should not be minimized. Indeed, it can be an important step toward self-sufficiency. The House of Ruth, especially in light of its other successes, can ill afford to be open to allegations that might impede such a vital mission.