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Franciscan Ministry
Women’s Medical Clinic – An Oasis of Welcome in the Middle of Downtown Boston

Stacey, a guest at the Medical Clinic for Women, talks about a brutal attack that cost her one of her eyes. (Photo courtesy of video by The Rita A. DiMento Medical Clinic for Women at St. Anthony Shrine, Boston)

Stacey lost one of her eyes in a gruesome knife attack, a stark consequence of being a homeless woman living alone on the streets.

She was left severely battered and bruised – “unrecognizable,” said a nurse who treated her. But Stacey didn’t look for sympathy: “I’m alive, I have my other eye – and I have God on my side.” For Stacey and hundreds of other homeless women on the streets of Downtown Boston, they also have The Rita A. DiMento Medical Clinic for Women at St. Anthony Shrine on their side.

This Franciscan-based healthcare ministry is an oasis of welcome and tranquility – a safe, nurturing environment exclusively for women who are homeless, desperate, afraid, and distressed by any number of physical and emotional afflictions, such as extreme weather conditions, hunger, acute health issues, mental illness, substance abuse disorder, domestic violence, and sexual exploitation.

“Women are the most vulnerable of the homeless population, and most at-risk for being victimized on the 

Guests of the Medical Clinic for Women call Mary Ann Ponti, executive director of outreach at the Shrine, their guardian angel because she seems to always show up in their moment of need. (Photo courtesy of video by The Rita A. DiMento Medical Clinic for Women at St. Anthony Shrine, Boston)

streets,” said Mary Ann Ponti, the Shrine’s executive director of outreach and the clinic’s licensed drug and alcohol counselor.

St. Anthony Shrine partnered with Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program in March 2016 to establish the Medical Clinic for Women after recognizing the critical need for a facility available only to homeless women.

At 7:30 every Tuesday and Thursday morning, an hour before the clinic opens, Ms. Ponti and another member of the healthcare team begin street outreach. They check Boston Common – the oldest public park in the country – alleys, dumpsters, and other places where homeless women are known to congregate, sleep and hide, to remind them that it’s clinic day. They also provide food, bottled water, and personal hygiene items to the women. In her pitch to get newcomers to the clinic, Ms. Ponti stresses, “it’s women only, no men, you’ll be safe there.”

Ms. Ponti says it’s important for them to know they are entering a quiet, calm, peaceful, and safe space – which is the exact opposite of the complete chaos they experience every day of their life. “They’re often subject to sexual and other criminal assault and multiple forms of abuse. Many are still in major crisis because of trauma in their life from substance abuse, sex-trafficking and prostitution, and abusive relationships. This is one of the most difficult populations to serve because their fear and distrust usually makes them reluctant to seek medical care since most every facility treats women and men,” she said.

Angela Caputo, a nurse practitioner at the Medical Clinic for Women, talks to a homeless woman about coming to the clinic for healthcare. (Photo courtesy of video by The Rita A. DiMento Medical Clinic for Women at St. Anthony Shrine, Boston)

Angela Caputo, the clinic’s nurse practitioner who often accompanies Ms. Ponti on their early morning outreach missions, said, “It’s so hard to develop that continuity of care, really, with anyone, but even more so within this population of homeless women.”

One guest calls Ms. Caputo and Ms. Ponti her angels. “When I’m down and out, for some reason, Mary Ann pops up out of nowhere. I’ve never had anyone to talk to, but I have them,” said Karen, who’s been tased and beaten while living on the streets.

Michelle, who was abused as a child and turned to prostitution at age 11 to support a drug habit, added, “Now I have a place to go and people who listen.”

When they arrive, guests check in at the reception desk and are invited to have coffee and snacks. Ms. Ponti said guests can then relax, chat – and even nap – for as long as they want in the comfortable waiting area. The clinic has clean modern bathrooms, shower facilities, two examination rooms, offices, and a medical supply room.

“I feel welcome at the clinic. It’s bright, it’s positive. They actually care. That’s my motivation to keep going,” said Shyan.

Another guest, Ange, said, “It’s good to feel supported. It’s had a positive impact on my life.”

Central to the full menu of services at the Medical Clinic for Women is primary care. The all-female healthcare team (even security personnel are women) consists of a registered nurse, nurse practitioner, and alcohol and drug counselor who coordinate an individual care plan for each guest that addresses, monitors and manages their health and other related needs. They diagnose medical conditions, treat illnesses, order labs and imaging, write prescriptions, provide wound care, change dressings, make referrals to dental, detoxification, recovery and mental health programs, and offer education and counseling on things like smoking cessation and personal hygiene.

“The short-term goal is to provide the medical care and attention that homeless women need and deserve – and long-term, to improve and stabilize their health to help them live independently and contribute to society. We get a lot of people disconnected from their own families, but who feel a connection here. The clinic becomes their family,” said Thomas Conway, OFM, executive director of the Shrine on Arch Street.

Ms. Ponti says the women who come to The Rita A. DiMento Medical Clinic for Women at St. Anthony Shrine are human beings with a past. “They are someone’s daughter, sister, mother, friend. They didn’t wake up one morning and say they wanted to be homeless.

Thomas Conway, OFM, executive director of St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, says the goal of the Medical Clinic for Women is to improve and stabilize the health of homeless women to help them live independently. (Photo courtesy of video by The Rita A. DiMento Medical Clinic for Women at St. Anthony Shrine, Boston)

It’s wonderful that the Franciscan friars welcome these women to the Shrine. You can feel the prayers of the friars when you walk through the doors,” she said.

A guest named Sam very bluntly summed up what The Rita A. DiMento Medical Clinic for Women at St. Anthony Shrine means to the homeless women of Downtown Boston: “There’s not a lot of resources for girls, especially for homeless girls. If I didn’t have the clinic, I probably would’ve been dead by now.”

Content for this article compiled and written by Steve Mangione.

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