Facing growing need, women’s shelter set for upgrade

A rectangular-shaped dining and gathering space dominates most of the basement at the Women’s Lunch Place Shelter. A rectangular-shaped dining and gathering space dominates most of the basement at the Women’s Lunch Place Shelter. (Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe)
By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / March 21, 2011

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The smoke and aroma from the kitchen waft through hallways and permeates clothing, those worn by the clients and those hung in the cramped laundry room not far from the kitchen.

The flavor is chicken.

“It’s terrible, especially if you have asthma,’’ quips Lisa M. Jenkins, 48, a homeless woman who eight years ago first stepped inside The Woman’s Lunch Place, a daytime shelter for women in Boston’s Back Bay. “I mean, I love this place, it’s a haven for a lot of women who would probably be out in the cold without it, but there are a lot of women coming in here now, and there’s just not enough space.’’

Beginning in May, it will undergo a renovation to better accommodate the increased number of poor and homeless women who rely on the shelter for lunch and other assistance. When it opened in 1982 in the basement of a church on Newbury Street, it served a handful of women. Now it serves more than 200 in a space that has not been updated since 1969.

Administrators have raised about $2 million in corporate and individual donations and expect to reach their $2.5 million capital campaign goal. The renovations are expected to be finished by August.

Sharon Reilly, the shelter’s executive director since 2007, said she looks forward to the long-delayed upgrade of facilities.

“I’m a native Mississippian who grew up on a sharecropper’s farm picking cotton and dreaming of doing something very different for myself,’’ Reilly said. “To come to Boston and have the opportunity to work with women who grew up pretty much like I did, and to now be in a position to provide a better home for them, a better space that dignifies who they are as women, is something that makes me very proud.’’

Reilly strolled through the basement recently pointing out rooms too small for their purpose. The facility resembles a high school cafeteria. A rectangular-shaped dining and gathering space dominates most of the basement. A kitchen is at one side of the rectangle while doors on the other three walls lead into smaller rooms.

In a supply room, the staff keeps donated clothing, for women heading to job interviews. A library — one wall lined with paperbacks — doubles as an overflow napping room. The room has just enough space for seven women. The laundry room has one washer and one dryer.

The shower room has a single shower. The medical room is so small it can not accommodate an exam table. And the kitchen’s design is so far from functional that it is hazardous at the height of food preparation time.

The renovations will involve removing walls that choke much of the shelter’s space, revamping the kitchen, and moving the medical room and a resource center to the third floor. The resource center would triple in size. It provides counseling, job training, housing tips for clients, and access to phones and computers.

Central air conditioning will also be added. During summer months, heat from the kitchen raises temperatures inside the basement, and the staff relies on oscillating fans. The renovations would also include an additional shower, more bathroom space, and four washers and dryers.

Having such amenities would allow the clients, 40 percent of whom are homeless, to blend into the general population, Reilly said. “A lot of homeless people are targeted with violence or looked down upon because of their appearance,’’ she said.

The renovations are likely to add about $200,000 to the shelter’s annual operating costs of $1.8 million, an increase expected to be partially offset by the relocation of the administrative offices from Arlington Street to a rent-free space on Boylston Street, provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the Boston publishing company.

Robyn Frost, executive director of the nonprofit Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless in Lynn, said shelters such as The Women’s Lunch Place and Rosie’s Place, an overnight shelter in Boston with 20 beds, fill a vital role for women. “Both places are unique and do great work for women,’’ Frost said. “We are in unprecedented times because of the downturn in the economy. I’ve been doing this work for over 20 years, and I’ve never seen this level of need.’’

Frost said there are about 35,000 homeless individuals in the state and about 3,000 homeless families living in shelters.

“This place did a lot for me when I was homeless, put me through recovery and everything,’’ said Glenda Allen, 65, who has utilized The Women’s Lunch Place for more than 20 years. “So I keep coming. It’s kinda choked up a little bit now, but everybody moves along anyway. I know they’re trying to do better though, trying to make it bigger for us.’’

Brian R. Ballou can be reached at