Guardian Frank Sevola (left) watches as Shrine Rector Tom Conway demolishes something. (Photo courtesy of Julianne Gauron)

St. Anthony Shrine Women’s Medical Clinic Receives Major Renovation

Stephen Mangione Around the Province

BOSTON, Mass. – A Franciscan-based healthcare ministry that has become a beacon for one of the city’s most vulnerable and medically underserved populations has received a $1.3 million renovation.

The new shower in the Women’s Center at the Shrine. (Photo courtesy of Julianne Gauron)

A new accessible bathroom with shower amenities, an additional state-of-the-art examination room, a modernized and comfortable waiting area, and a new private drug and alcohol counseling room are among the features of the extensive upgrades at the Women’s Medical Clinic at St. Anthony Shrine – which has become a leading provider of healthcare to homeless women living on the streets of downtown Boston.

The combination of renovated, upgraded, and reimagined space is designed to increase the Arch Street clinic’s capacity to meet the complex healthcare needs of the growing number of homeless women in Boston – a population, according to the advocates, that was on the rise  before the COVID-19 outbreak. Pre-pandemic, the clinic was providing care to more than 70 homeless women a month.

“Women are the most vulnerable of the homeless population and the most at-risk for being victimized on the street. The Women’s Medical Clinic at the Shrine is unique and critical because of the emphasis that’s placed on the whole woman. We address medical needs and substance use and mental health disorders as well – and there’s a coordinated effort to find them a safe place to sleep and connect them to housing through our network of homeless service providers,” explained Mary Ann Ponti, St. Anthony Shrine’s director of outreach.

“The renovation allows us to serve more homeless women in a new and exciting space. We anticipate that the women already treated at the clinic will tell other women about the renovated facility – which is how we often get new clients,” added Ponti.

Safe Environment for Women Only
The Women’s Medical Clinic opened at the Shrine in Downtown Crossing in March 2016 as a partnership between St. Anthony and Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program to create a facility that is available only to women. With many homeless women the victims of physical abuse, their fear and distrust usually make them reluctant to seek care at facilities that provide for both men and women.

But the Shrine’s medical clinic – whose entire staff, including security personnel stationed at the entrance, is female – has become a safe, nurturing, and comfortable environment for homeless women, many of whom are dealing with a myriad of complex issues that range from sex trafficking, prostitution, and domestic abuse, to HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, mental illness, and medical problems.

“Many women on the street find themselves caught in the triangle of homelessness, addiction, and survival sex, which goes hand-in-hand with violence from predatory men. The clinic provides a safe and secure place for women to unwind and be able to accept help,” said Ponti, a Shrine staff member since 2014.

Special Messages from the Friars
To maintain the women-only element of the clinic, yet bring the Franciscan spirit to those seeking care, the homeless women are given the opportunity to pen letters to friars stationed at the Shrine. The friars, in turn, reply to each of the women in writing. “The letter-writing has been a beautiful way for the women to receive the love and support of Holy Name Province friars. It is this extra spiritual nourishment that makes the experience complete for women who come to the clinic,” said Ponti.

The $1.3 million renovation – which also included a new concierge greeting area, consultation room, half-bathroom, and storage space – was a three-way partnership of St. Anthony Shrine, Boston-based Elkus Manfredi Architects, and Suffolk Construction.

“I have long admired and appreciated the many programs of the St. Anthony community that benefit disadvantaged and hurting citizens in our city. Elkus Manfredi Architects has been privileged to support the friars in serving one of Boston’s most vulnerable populations,” said David Manfredi, the firm’s CEO and founding principal who has been named the Shrine’s recipient of the 2021 Pope Francis Award – which is presented at the Shrine’s annual gala to an individual whose life and career mirror the charism and mission of St. Francis of Assisi.

“The Women’s Medical Clinic serves homeless women with compassion, patience, and a deep sense of caring while also helping them maintain their self-respect and dignity,” said John Fish, chairman and CEO of Suffolk Construction, which has headquarters in Boston and regional offices in Miami, Los Angeles, and other cities. “We were honored and proud to manage this important renovation project so the new facility can provide much-needed care for these underserved and vulnerable members of our community.”

In addition to maximizing the existing footprint of the clinic and creating new space – and making it a more practical and welcoming environment – the facility is now equipped with the latest technology and other amenities that bring the physical plant to the same level of excellence as the healthcare and services provided by the team of professionals.

Tony LoGalbo watches as Tom Conway demolishes. (Photo courtesy of Julianne Gauron)

Street Outreach
Once the renovation project broke ground in August 2020, the clinic was shut down.  But with the COVID-19 outbreak, Ponti and the staff had already adjusted to new ways of providing healthcare and services to clients – a pivot that was necessitated by the state’s pandemic-imposed restrictions and safety guidelines.

“Sadly, during the pandemic, many homeless services have been operating at reduced capacity or have been completely shut down. During the renovation, we dramatically increased our street outreach, giving medical care and referrals there,” said Ponti.

Throughout the pandemic and the clinic’s closure during renovations, the staff has met clients outside at the Shrine’s garage loading dock, where the Franciscan Food Center has also been distributing food. Ponti also regularly visits Boston Common – the city’s central public park – and other areas where homeless women are known to congregate and sleep.

“She will downplay the importance of her role, but the Shrine’s outreach operation runs so well because Mary Ann Ponti has two remarkable qualities. First, she knows everyone remotely connected with the downtown homeless community: shelter workers, first responders, medical professionals, social workers, neighborhood association members, philanthropists, lawmakers, and the homeless themselves,” said Thomas Conway, OFM, executive director of St. Anthony Shrine.

“Second, like a cartoon crimefighter, Mary Ann has an uncanny ability to show up in the neighborhood exactly when she’s needed, sometimes even disappearing before people have had a chance to thank her for helping,” said Tom.

Often accompanied by a clinic staff member, Ponti’s street outreach begins at 7:30 a.m. She provides food, bottled water, face coverings, and personal hygiene items to homeless women. She and the nurse practitioner also assess whether the medical needs of any of the women require a visit to the hospital emergency room or Boston Health Care for the Homeless. They have also been providing factual information to help quell rumors and fears about COVID-19 and, more recently, have been passing along information about vaccination locations.

“We purchased a cell phone dedicated exclusively to our street outreach efforts and provide the number to homeless women so we are able to stay connected with them on a daily basis through calls and text messages,” said Ponti, who – when making her way through the downtown area – checks alleys, behind dumpsters, and other places that women tend to hide when they’re living on the street.

Since street outreach efforts have intensified while the clinic has been closed, Ponti and staff members appear to be in contact with even more homeless women – especially since word spreads by those who know the days and times that Ponti will be showing up with food and hygiene items.

When the Women’s Medical Clinic opened five years ago, the Shrine provided the space and the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program provided a nurse practitioner, who treated a handful of homeless women one day a week for four hours. Two years later, in 2018, the Shrine was awarded a half-million-dollar grant from the Cummings Foundation sustaining grants program – paid out in annual $50,000 increments for 10 years – that enabled the clinic to expand its staff and offer medical services two days a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

The new waiting room at the Women’s Center at the Shrine. (Photo courtesy of Julianne Gauron)

The clinic is staffed by a team of health professionals provided by Boston Health Care that includes a registered nurse, nurse practitioner, and licensed drug and alcohol counselor – all of whom manage and monitor the care of every homeless woman who walks through the door. They provide medical care, drug, and alcohol counseling, detoxification referrals, and case management for vital documents – and also arrange transportation to referral appointments.

Mental health assessments are done through a representative of the Department of Mental Health’s Homeless Outreach Team. Ponti said her team also provides referrals to shelters and safe houses and provides clothing, toiletries, and nutrition support to help get women through the day.

The nurse practitioner diagnoses medical conditions, treats illnesses, orders labs, and imaging, and writes prescriptions, while the registered nurse, among other things, provides wound care, dressing changes, and education and counseling on smoking cessation, personal hygiene, and proper use of asthma inhalers and life-saving opioid overdose reversal medication. The alcohol and drug counselor sets up placement in detoxification programs and follows patient care through every step of the process. Clients are greeted by a receptionist/health navigator at the concierge desk.

Maryanne Rooney-Hegan, director of development at St. Anthony Shrine, said that the renovation provides the clinic with the ability to expand its services and reach more people.

“This much-needed renovation now offers an aesthetically healing, engaging, and appealing environment for the homeless women who come here. It was important, for example, to make sure that every client has access to a private, modern shower facility,” said Rooney-Hegan, who noted that the friars are grateful for the Shrine’s benefactors and friends whose overwhelming support made the $1.3 million renovations a reality – although more funds are needed to close the gap on the total cost.

“The homeless women of our community know they are safe at the clinic, that no one is going to hurt them. The clinic provides a peaceful, protected space for homeless women to escape the chaos of street life. Some come just to sit in a chair for three or four hours. Now they will be able to do that in a new and beautiful environment,” added Rooney-Hegan.

Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.