Thursday, July 6, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wellness center provides respite for homeless women

Seattle Times staff reporter

Strangers can't tell she's homeless unless she's carrying her suitcases and duffel bags, she says.

And Joan Van Zandt doesn't want them to know.

The 43-year-old doesn't want to be stared at. So three or four times a week, Van Zandt makes an appointment at the Women's Wellness Center, a hygiene center at Second Avenue and Stewart Street in downtown Seattle, where she and her mother can shower and do laundry.

"I worry on the days that we don't come in here that people can smell us and will know we're homeless," Van Zandt said. "The days that we come in here, I feel like we're just anyone else. For women on the street, all we have is our pride."

The Women's Wellness Center opened in January. One of two hygiene centers in Seattle, it is financed by the city. The other one, the Urban Rest Stop, provides many of the same services but is used mostly by men.

On average, the Rest Stop at 1924 Ninth Ave. has provided 2,000 showers a month since it opened in March. The Wellness Center has averaged 420 showers a month.

At the center, women can make daily appointments for up to a week in advance. This is particularly helpful for the 30 percent of women who use the center to get ready for work each morning.

Homeless women are used to covering themselves up and keeping their heads down on the streets because looking feminine can be dangerous, said Diane Nardi, lead supervisor at the center.

"A lot of the women feel the shame of the situation they're in," Nardi said. While they are at the Wellness Center, the women get to look and feel feminine.

The workers at the center want the women to feel like welcomed guests at a spa, says program director Cynthia Shaw. The staff lets women take their time to shower, primp and do laundry. Bathrobes are provided because sometimes all the women have to wash are the clothes on their back. The women can sit and visit, drinking coffee, tea or hot chocolate as they get ready for a day that might be spent roaming the streets trying to secure a shelter bed, meals or more permanent housing.

Shelves are stocked with donated lotions, shampoos and conditioners. A large wicker basket filled with sample-size bottles sits on a vanity counter. Women are encouraged to take what they need.

Individuals and organizations donate makeup, fingernail polish and perfume. The staff tries to secure specialty products, such as shampoo that works well on African-American hair.

"Part of what we're trying to do is help women restore their sense of femininity," Shaw said.

The center has been successful partly because it can serve only 12 to 15 women at a time. Staffers say this is the most individual attention and the most privacy that many of these women get.

Every woman on the four-person staff was once homeless. Nardi, the lead supervisor, was homeless for seven months.

"Before I became homeless I was scared of homeless people," Nardi said. "Then I became homeless myself and realized that my perception of homelessness was way off. People don't want to be out here."

Van Zandt and her mother, Phyllis Albritton, 63, moved to Seattle recently from Grand Rapids, Mich. The two live on Social Security and disability payments. On their way to Seattle, mother and daughter got off the bus to use a restroom. Van Zandt placed their wallet on her mother's wheelchair, which was wedged in the doorway of the restroom stall. In a split second, someone stole the wallet and the $500 in it, and Van Zandt and Albritton had nothing. The $900 the two receive each month in benefits isn't enough to cover rent and move-in charges for most Seattle apartments.

In the morning, they leave a night-only shelter by 8 or 9 o'clock. Van Zandt says most of their belongings are stored in a rented locker so they don't have to carry them around town.

"It's hard to go look for a job when you have everything in your life in your hands," Nardi said.

The rest of the day is consumed with doctor's appointments, making phone calls to agencies and shelters or filling out forms. They read, smoke and wait, surrounded by other people at a day shelter called Angeline's. By 5:30, it's time to line up for a meal and a bed in one of Seattle's open shelters.

Van Zandt says she and her mother love the Women's Wellness Center.

"This place is a godsend," she said.

Officials originally wanted the hygiene centers housed in one building on Third Avenue, but the Downtown Seattle Association objected, saying that many needy people should not be concentrated in one place. After a search, the city found the two locations.

In the Urban Rest Stop's first month of operation, 815 people used the facility at least once. Most come to take showers or use a toilet.

"You have to wonder what people were doing before we opened our doors," said Ronni Gilboa, who manages the Urban Rest Stop.

Gilboa estimates that 30 percent to 40 percent of the people who use the Urban Rest Stop are getting ready for work. Gilboa and others who work with the homeless say Seattle's mounting rents are driving many people employed at minimum wage or as day labor out onto the streets or into shelters. Officials estimate that up to 6,000 people don't have a place to sleep in King County on any given night.

When Gregory Dockins shows up at 4:30 or 5 a.m. for his shift as day supervisor at the Urban Rest Stop, a dozen people, most on their way to work, are waiting at the door.

"You really have two choices: Come get your shower and get your clothes washed, or go hang out on the streets," Dockins said. "They'd rather be warm and safe in here."

At the Women's Wellness Center, the women aren't just safe, they're cared for.

Once she'd stopped using the center, one woman sent a card, as though she were thanking a kind friend who had given her a place to stay when she was visiting. She'd just started working, she said, and would drop in from time to time with a progress report.

The card had a pink and blue cover - and a return address.

Paige Parker's phone message number is 206-464-2429. Her e-mail address is


Stopoffs for homeless

The Women's Wellness Center, 1900 Second Ave., Seattle, is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekends. Phone: 206-256-0665.

The Urban Rest Stop, 1924 Ninth Ave., Seattle, is open from 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends. Phone: 206-332-0110.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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