We believe in the power of storytelling and the importance of investing in the future by sharing those stories – whether they are stories of successful community ventures or lessons learned from stories of things you wish happened just a little bit differently. These are the stories of communities working together for the common good. This article is part of “We Are Here: Housing Insecurity in Cincinnati,” a series produced by Women of Cincy and originally published at womenofcincy.org/housing.
Interview by Kiersten Feuchter. Photography by Angie Lipscomb. | We arrived at Weightless Anchor in East Price Hill on a hot, hot July Thursday about a half an hour before the home opened. We could’ve benefited from the wisdom of Cassy Booker, the ministry’s director, for hours, but our time was short, and women were already knocking on the door seeking an afternoon of comfort in the tiny, cheery home. In fact, two women were already in the kitchen, one half arguing with the other and half arguing with herself about whether she was ready to seek treatment for her addiction. Cassy seemed unfazed – not unsympathetic in the slightest, but she had a job to do, and her job was to love that woman – real, straight up, sometimes-tough love – whether she was ready for it or not. While the women continued talking in the kitchen, we thanked Cassy endlessly for her time and sat down to get right to the point.
Tell us about Weightless Anchor and what you do here.
So we have two houses: One’s in Lower Price Hill. It’s about a mile from here; you just go straight down Glenway. That was our original house. That opened in in 2012. So Weightless Anchor is part of BLOC Ministries, and our mission is just to serve our neighbors, and we saw a really big need in Lower Price Hill for women that were struggling on the streets. So we worked with a church down there and opened a place during the day that women could come to get meals, to shower, to get food, to be prayed for, in hopes that the love that was pouring out on them, that they would start to believe that they had worth.
Lower Price Hill used to be one of the biggest open soliciting areas in Cincinnati, and then in 2014, they closed down State Avenue and did major construction, so all the traffic went up Glenway. So in 2015, we opened this, just because we saw another major need up here. If you drive down Warsaw, you can see many women that are involved in sex trafficking. Pretty much hop every corner; you can see someone.
So last year at this time, we probably had an average of 6 to 10 women coming in a day. Now, we have about 20 to 25.
We’ve built the trust, and so maybe women that were hesitant to come before are like, “Okay. I know people that have been coming there for a year. They’re not gonna snitch on me.” That’s a big thing in this community. A lot of women have warrants. Pretty much everyone that comes in this home are active users. So that’s kind of how I think it’s grown, is just the word’s gotten out. People feel safe here.
In a way, we work with the District 3 vice team that focuses on prostitution in the city. We have the same mission: that is, to help these women to find freedom. I was like, “How can we help you the best?” And they said just get women to court. So we provide rides to court, to detox facilities, to treatment facilities. I was in Lexington taking a girl to a hospital yesterday, so we just meet those needs and that’s the best way that we can help them sometimes.
With this series, we’re trying to tell this story better, and just say, “We’re all humans.” What advice would you give us on how to tell these types of stories?
The first thing that comes to mind is trauma. All of this begins with trauma. A lot of it’s generational. So many people that are displaced – you hear about veterans all the time; that’s a lot to do with trauma and unaddressed mental health issues. So I think a piece of that is: Explore people’s stories. What has happened to them? What kinds of things have they already had to experience, and what are they battling?
I’ve been here for a little over a year, and it is like… If you walk with someone trying to get back on their feet, you begin to understand how hard it is. I had no idea. When you’re growing up, you’re like, “Oh, just get a job.” That’s just the mantra: Get a job, then you make money; then you can get your house; it’s that easy. And just watching people actually go through that, it just gives you so much empathy for this situation, because it is so hard, and you just watch people get kicked back over and over and over again. It just gives you a better understanding of how hard it is to get back on your feet once you have become homeless or have had some sort of instability in your life.
What led you to get involved here?
I was a special education teacher for seven years, and then I was getting my master’s in mental health counseling, so I need more of a part-time job. I started working for a nonprofit, and I liked it, but there was too much paperwork and not enough human contact. One of my professors from school, her and her husband own this ministry. I had been bringing some girls that I mentor – we have a home that’s for women that are in recovery – so we had been going over there and volunteering and just building relationships with women. Just like, what does healthy friendship look like? Maybe for the first time ever, they’re getting to see that. So we had started doing that, and about the time when I was feeling like I needed to leave that [other nonprofit], they approached me and asked if I would become the director of this ministry.
How has this work impacted you? What are your relationships like with the women who come here?
I guess I’m like the mom. [Laughing.] I have really good relationships with most of the women. Some are more connected than others. For obvious reasons, a lot of women have a lot of walls built up. And we run completely off volunteers besides myself and one other staff member, Tessa. I tell the volunteers to not get discouraged. Like, imagine that they have had to protect themselves with this huge wall for their whole lives, and every day, we’re just taking off one brick from that wall. It’s not gonna come down overnight. They’re not gonna trust us overnight, and they might never trust us, and that is okay. That’s not what we’re here for; we’re here to just love them unconditionally.
It can be really tough. I’m kind of in a season where I’m experiencing some compassion fatigue. I’ve been doing this for a year without a break, and so in August, I’m going on a week break.
It’s the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever done in my life. We’ve had women die. We’ve had women overdose in our bathrooms. Right now, this home has been the busiest it’s ever been, and with two volunteers and like 20 women in this small home, it feels like chaos. We just don’t have enough capacity to handle the volume of people that we’re getting right now, so it’s been something that we’ve been really praying about and trying to figure out what that looks like. Is this just for a season? Do we need a bigger house? If we do, how do we get that house?
And then this week, everything changed. It was so weird: This house had had a really negative, dark feeling about it. I just think everyone is hot and tired and exhausted of this life, and so they’re angry, and I understand that. But that’s hard when I’m also trying to take care of volunteers that just want to love them. And then this week, we had so many women that were like, “I’m ready.” So yesterday, one woman went to the Lazarus Home, and she’s detoxing from alcohol and laid her life down for the Lord yesterday, so she’s in recovery. This morning, another woman went to Dayton for recovery. I took a lady to Lexington last night to get into the hospital. She was gonna die in the next couple days if she didn’t get to the hospital. And then hopefully she goes today [gesturing to the woman in the kitchen]. And that would be four women off the street in 24 hours, and that is just unheard of in this ministry.
Now, statistically – this is based on the facts that I’ve seen here – three of the four will be back on our doorstep next Monday. And that is the heartbreak. You see this glimpse of freedom that they get a taste of, and just… all the lies that they believe about themselves and all the things that the world as told them, it’s louder than the truth that they are worth it, and so that just beats them down.
And detoxing is hard, and if you’ve been using drugs to numb the pain and the trauma of maybe being molested your whole life as a child… All the sudden that’s taken away? You have to deal with that. You can either deal with it with zero coping skills, ’cause you don’t have any, or you just go back to the streets and continue numbing yourself. It’s so hard.
If you had to boil it all down, what are you all up against when it really comes down to it? What would have to change in order for a place like this to not even have to exist?
I would say it all starts with families – unhealthy families. Every single person that you talk to here, either their body was sold at a young age by a family member to someone else so they could get drugs or alcohol, or they began doing drugs with a family member at a really young age… Most commonly, they’ve been molested by a family member, and so that’s where it starts. The mantra in this neighborhood is you don’t snitch. And so that is the same in families. If you snitch, you are the worst of the worst. You are out of the family. You have no value. You are a piece of shit. And so these generations of families never change because no one’s talking about it. No one’s healing from it.
A huge piece of it, I believe, is on the mental health side. So many people are really hesitant in these neighborhoods to talk to anyone ’cause again, that’s snitching. So, I graduate in three weeks with my master’s, and what I’ve been doing for my internship is providing free counseling for people in this community. And BLOC Ministries has a unique foot in the door ’cause they’ve been here for 20 years, so people in Price Hill know who we are and they trust us. So I’m having people come to me and talk to me that maybe would never go talk to a normal mental health counselor. So I think that some change is gonna start through that avenue, but, it’s like this darkness that just continues breeding itself, and when there’s no light shown, it’s just gonna stay dark.
If you could make one ask of “the system,” what would it be?
Before Cassy can answer, the woman in the kitchen comes in and says, “Okay. I’m outta here.” Cassy gives her a hug and says, “You got this. Love you.” The woman leaves, and Cassy turns to us.
She’s not ready. I know she’ll be back in a couple days. You can just tell. Like she says that she can’t get any lower, but she can, and that honestly has to happen before people are really ready. I mean, that’s not my hope for her. I just see it all the time.
For the system… To understand trauma better. To take a trauma-approached look at what is systematically happening in our society. These are not choices. These choices were made for people a long time ago. And that’s the hard part, I think, to understand.
Same question, but if you had one ask for your “average Cincinnatian,” what would that be?
It’s so hard, ’cause you can’t teach empathy, and I think that’s what they need. So maybe it would be to put themselves in an uncomfortable position for one day. Put themselves in a place where they feel like an outcast or they feel unknown or unloved and like, sit with what that feels like. Because that is what the people on the streets and the people that are struggling feel like every day.