Mary’s House Makes a Home for Greensboro’s Most Vulnerable
Mary’s House is a big wood panelled home that blends in with its neighbors on Guilford Avenue. There is a small “Safe Place” sign attached to the porch, but no obvious clue that the unassuming shelter has spent the past 20 years giving Greensboro’s most vulnerable mothers and children a second chance at life.
Since Mary’s House opened in 1996, the shelter has celebrated the births of 39 sober babies. Women who have completed a stay at Mary’s House have a 90% success rate in transitioning to permanent housing, and 96% of them have stayed sober. A sister shelter, Mary’s Home, opened in 2005 with the same goal: to create a peaceful, loving home environment where women and their children can learn the skills they need to join the community.
“This is where you make the mistakes,” said Executive Director Jacqueline Phillips. “This is where you learn to communicate with another person. This is where you learn to say, ‘I can’t do this,’ and then we figure out how you can.”
Mary’s House serves homeless mothers over the age of 21 with children under the age of 10 and with a history of substance abuse. Greensboro is home to several organizations that shelter the homeless or rehabilitate those with addictions, but Mary’s House is unique for the specific slice of the population it helps, and for the length of stay it allows residents.
“We are probably the only organization in the area that offers transitional housing for up to 15 months,” said Phillips.
Phillips has been at the helm of Mary’s House for two years, but she has been involved with the ministry since she was a graduate student at UNCG, when she took an internship teaching parenting classes there. She never left, except to get a second master’s degree in rehabilitation counselling so that she could better serve the residents. Phillips’ original background in child education and development is still at the core of her philosophy for Mary’s House.
“To me, the bottom line is education,” said Phillips. “It helps the moms in all facets of their lives.”
Like a school day, residents’ time at Mary’s House is strictly scheduled. They must be up by 7 a.m. to attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings at 7:30. Some then go to work or in search of work, while others attend GED prep courses or classes in parenting, home care, financial management and nutrition.
Phillips tries to train residents in a wide range of life skills to give them their best shot at breaking the cycle of homelessness. In many cases, psychotherapy or other mental health care is also needed. According to Phillips, mental health is a crucial underlying factor in many cases of drug abuse or homelessness.
“A lot of times you’re looking at substance use disorder, but you’re also looking at mental health,” she said. “When I look at applications and I see that this person started using alcohol at the age of 11, I know something went very, very wrong.”
No matter what the mothers who come to Phillips have been through, she strives to help each of them come to terms with their past and teach them how to go forward with their dignity restored.
“I hate to use the word addict,” said Phillips. “I look at it this way: I see a strong person inside that person, someone who wants to heal and grow, to come back out into society. Here, their children are able to grow with them.”
Mothers at Mary’s House progress through a level system, starting as guests and moving up to seniors. With each level come privileges as well as responsibilities. The kids at Mary’s House go through no such system, but they also learn how a stable home feels.
“They’re learning how to share, they’re learning how to be with each other,” said Phillips. “They argue, they make fun of each other, and they get put in time out together, just like brothers and sisters.”
Phillips feels overwhelmed by the generous donations given to these kids and their mothers by the community, especially around the holidays.
“During Christmas we had so many churches involved. It was heartfelt, and it humbled me to see all those people come together to help. I was getting so many gifts from both outside and inside, the room next door was full,” Phillips said.
As much joy as these donations of toys and clothing have been for the residents, donations of money and time are what Mary’s House needs most; volunteer applications for child care workers, tutors, repair people and clerical workers can be found on their web site.
The house has a fleet of donated children’s bicycles and a jungle gym in the backyard, but still strains to pay for necessities like residents’ medications, food, and diapers, not to mention supplemental rent for those families who have recently moved out on their own.
The financial burden has increased since 2016, when Mary’s House lost funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which wanted to prioritize fast transitions into permanent housing, instead of the longer, development centered program that Mary’s House was built on.
“HUD was going with the Housing First Initiative, and we wanted to stick with our mission of education,” Phillips explained.
Despite the financial and emotional challenges of overseeing the community’s most vulnerable families, Phillips is determined to fight for the women and children she represents. She wants to obtain a grant for child care to help residents with jobs, and to one day procure nearby apartments that former residents can use as a first step in their transition to independent life. Phillips said she draws strength and inspiration from the mothers and children she lives with; in the end, the education at Mary’s House goes both ways.
“I’ve learned so much from these women. It’s amazing, the strength it takes to walk through that door and say, ‘I’m tired of being on drugs.’” said Phillips. “It’s hard enough raising children. If they can parent through this, my hat’s off to them.”
To volunteer, donate, or apply to stay at Mary’s House, visit www.maryshousegso.org.
Mia Osborn is a Greensboro-based freelance writer who hails from Birmingham, Alabama.