Story & Photos by Claire Sheridan
Named for Sister Jose Hobday, a nun who dedicated her life to helping the poor, Sister Jose Women’s Center (SJWC) is the only homeless shelter in Tucson that has always allowed clients to bring their pet dog or cat into the shelter. It is the product of dedication and hard work of volunteers; the center opened in 2009, and moved into its new facility in 2016. Daytime drop-in and overnight programs are available. The center operates 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.
SJWC’s stable and safe environment allows women to recuperate from the daily struggle of homelessness and extreme poverty. SJWC is a community; compassion, dignity and respect are paramount, as is its non-institutionalized setting. Program Director Penny Buckley said, “For many of the women, their pets are the only enduring relationship. The animals provide unconditional love; the women will forgo services and their own safety at night to stay with their pets.” Some come to the center only once; for others, SJWC is a bedrock where they find the resources necessary to transition out of homelessness.
From 9am to 5pm Monday through Saturday, up to 100 women are served meals; they do laundry and take showers. In the beautiful and secure backyard, both women and their pets find temporary respite from the challenges they face living on the street. They have been kicked out of their homes, or have experienced abuse, an eviction or unemployment. Some have just been discharged from the hospital or the Crisis Response Center and may have physical or mental health concerns.
The Extended Night Program helps connect women to services and benefits with the ultimate goal of securing housing. It can take 6 months or longer to qualify for Social Security disability benefits or for Section 8 housing. Women and their pets are especially vulnerable to predatory behavior on the streets; they operate in survival mode, making it all the more likely that they will remain homeless.
Gwendolyn and her companion of 12 years, a dog named Mr. Beez, participate in the Extended Night Program. Last year, the soft-spoken traveling dialysis nurse came to Tucson from Milwaukee, looking for a permanent position. She was injured on the job. However, because she had not been working for a full year, she was ineligible for disability benefits. The hospital’s Occupational Health Department determined she was not fit to return to work.
Ineligible for both disability and unemployment benefits, Gwendolyn rapidly ran out of financial resources. Lacking family ties and resources, she and Mr. Beez found themselves without a home. They gratefully stumbled into SJWC.
At SJWC, Gwendolyn also enrolled in the CREATE program. CREATE, funded by private donors, gives the women at SJWC tools to move forward in life and become productive members of society when they leave. The focus is on empowerment; it offers training in vocations such as culinary arts. In return, participants serve the SJWC community by working in the kitchen, laundry or on shower duty. They are paid a small stipend.
“I literally wouldn’t be here without Sister Jose,” Gwendolyn said. Neither would Mr. Beez. In June, shortly after entering the shelter, Mr. Beez became ill. At first suspecting that he was suffering from hot spots, Gwendolyn used her nursing training to try remedying his illness herself. She tried Benadryl and topical ointments to no avail. As his condition worsened, Jean Fedigan, Executive Director, came to the rescue. Taking Mr. Beez to the vet, and paying out of her own pocket, Fedigan saved Mr. Beez’s life. It turned out that Mr. Beez was suffering from a bacterial infection.
With the help of SJWC, Gwendolyn is pursuing a master’s degree in nursing. She plans to work in case management, where she will not have to worry about further injury from direct patient care. Gwendolyn has even been offered a position as a Case Manager Liaison at SJWC.
Mr. Beez is not the only dog Fedigan has rescued. Recently, a small dog showed up at SJWC’s front door. He had been there before with his human; this time he came alone. He was in bad shape, having apparently been attacked by something larger. Seemingly, the dog knew to find safety and help at SJWC. After being bathed and triaged by one of the center’s residents, Fedigan took the injured dog to the vet. The cost of his care exceeded $1000, which she again paid out of her own pocket. The center informed the dog’s owner, who chose to leave the dog to recuperate at SJWC.
To give back for the care Mr. Beez received, Gwendolyn has established a fund, Sister Jose’s Furry Angels, to help pay for the veterinary needs of animals in the future. She sets aside 20% of her stipend from CREATE, and hopes to raise additional funds from the community. Gwendolyn said, “Ms. Jean is an angel. She takes on each pet as her own. If not for her, I don’t know if Mr. Beez would be here today.”
For additional information on programs, volunteer opportunities or to donate, please contact Sister Jose Women’s Center at:
1050 S Park Ave, Tucson, AZ 85719