Community Women's Shelter Reopens

Community Women’s Shelter Renovated, Re-Named Norma Herr Women’s Center

By: Rosie Palfy

            After years of dreaming, planning and fundraising -- the waiting is over. The largest homeless shelter for women in Cuyahoga County has finally been renovated. The Community Women’s Shelter has a new look, a new name and even a new address.

            The two separate buildings that housed the old shelter at 2219 Payne Avenue were renovated and connected with a walkway to form one large facility. The refurbished shelter looks brand new on the inside and has taken the address of the old shelter’s second building at 2227 Payne Avenue. A grand re-opening celebration was held on October 26 and the shelter was re-named the Norma Herr Women’s Center in honor of a former resident.

            Susan Neth, the executive director of Mental Health Services, called the renovation “a labor of love that was shouldered by many -- the city, the county and the philanthropic community.” The project, a joint venture between the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County, was a culmination of years of planning and fundraising by many dedicated volunteers. The Cleveland Foundation and the George Gund Foundation each contributed large grants to renovate the buildings owned by Emerald Development and Economic Network, Inc. The Ohio Department of Development and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also provided financial support.

            “Today is just a wonderful day. It’s been a long time coming,” said Kathy Kazol, executive director of EDEN.

            According to Kazol, both the building and the project went through many transformations. That process was due to changes in the economy and was also reflective of the shifts in the community’s thinking and philosophy of how to deliver services to homeless people over the last five years.

            “In the beginning we thought of the shelter as the end place and now we think of the shelter simply as a stop along the way… What we are really focused on now is finding people a home,” said Kazol.

            Cuyahoga County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones said the center is a place where women can come with a sense of dignity, while feeling safe and secure to “plan their comeback in life.”

            “If there’s any trait you need in life, you need to be able to be resilient. You need to be able to bounce back… and that’s what this place is. It’s a trampoline for those women and families who want to get back on their feet and actualize their human potential,” said Lawson Jones.

            Neth told the audience a touching story about the first time she met Norma Herr on the day MHS assumed operations of the women’s shelter more than six years ago. At the time, Herr was the oldest resident in the shelter, in her ‘70s, elderly, frail and alone.

            “I was humbled by Norma Herr… Untreated mental illness had ravaged her life. Schizophrenia had devastated her relationships with family and friends. She had endured 17 years of homelessness and despite her attempts at staying isolated within this shelter, the younger women in the shelter were drawn to her,” said Neth.

            Herr would sit by herself in the corner of the room, and the women would move their chairs closer to where she sat, attempting to engage her in conversation. They told her stories, talked and laughed. They even called her “mom.” On Herr’s darkest days, when she was the most challenged, the women sat with her quietly in the corner, Neth said.

            MHS’ staff tried to help Herr get treatment for her mental illness and help her obtain housing, but she adamantly refused. She also rejected every attempt that was made to help her see a nurse for the physical pain she was suffering. Herr often talked about her two daughters, but she wouldn’t allow the staff to contact them and let them know that she was alive and safe.

            “It wasn’t until Norma was most vulnerable and dying from inoperable cancer that she consented to us making that phone call,” said Neth. “We called and the daughters came to Cleveland. The family was finally reunited and those final weeks of Norma’s life were surrounded by love.”

            For Herr’s daughters Natalia Rachel Singer and Mira Bartok, the event served as both a tribute to their mother’s memory and a celebration of her life.

            “Our mother was a loving, gifted human being, a brilliant musician, lover of the arts, a believer in human rights, social justice and she was also afflicted with a terrible illness that robbed her the ability to pursue her dreams,” said Bartok.

            Singer said the shelter’s staff reconnected her family and every day a group of women came to visit Herr while she was in a hospice facility. The daughters got to meet the women who found refuge at the shelter and were now part their mother’s new family.

            “There were women here who loved and revered my mother and called her ‘mother’ even when my sister and I could not… Every woman had a devastating story to tell -- stories of abuse, addiction, poverty. But everyone had hope in their eyes and had stories of survival and joy, funny stories. They laughed and cried,” said Singer.

            During the 17 years they were estranged from their mother, Singer and Bartok both became accomplished writers. Bartok wrote about her relationship with her mother and their reunion in a memoir called The Memory Palace which will be released in January 2011. She hopes the book will help raise public awareness about mental illness and homelessness.

            Bartok said many people believe they are immune to homelessness. When people see a homeless woman on the street, she wants people to stop and think, “She could be my mother too, and in this current economy she could be me. Until everyone understands that, we will continue to be plagued with homelessness in this country,” Bartok added.

            The women moved back into the renovated center on November 16 and had their own celebration. Members of the Browns Women’s Organization served a traditional Thanksgiving-style meal to more than 100 women and gave each woman a gift bag with toiletry items.

Copyright Street Chronicle and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless published in December 2010.