By Monica Busch, Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – Annette Rafferty, born in 1930, began her work with Abby's House in 1973, before it even existed. After teaching for 21 years at various Catholic schools, she was asked by the Worcester Urban Ministry Commission to serve on a committee assessing whether there was need for a new homeless shelter in Worcester. Heading the task force, Rafferty took to the streets.
It didn’t take long to conclude that homelessness was a growing problem. She talked to individuals, neighborhood centers, and even prostitutes.
“I asked them what prompted their being there [at a shelter]. They said [they would do] anything for a room; anything for something over [their] head and not being out on the streets. To me, all the women I talked to had pretty much documented the need, but no one had ever come around to collect the documentation.”
Two years later, when it was time to propose opening a shelter, the commission turned down the request without any specific reasoning. Rafferty explains that it was like a fire being lit underneath her.
“I had reached a point of no return. I resigned from the committee, gathered all those who said there was a need and formed a collective of women. We met in the fall in 1975 and said we would go ahead anyway and raise the money. And we did.”
A year later, the first phase of Abby's House was opened. The light on the porch went on, and Rafferty said it has been on every night since.
“Every day there is some kind of reward. You can see the women developing. It's so wonderful to hear someone say, ‘I found my own apartment and I got a good job.’ It's delightful to hear that. The successes are individualized. Every day somebody comes and says something that's an inspiration.”
But the challenge, Rafferty said, is far from over.
“Some of the circumstances some women are in are worse than 36 years ago. It's very hard to find decent, affordable and safe housing for women. We are always crowded, always full.”
But, Abby's House staffers and volunteers aren’t giving up. They continue recruiting help and fund-raising to ensure that women and children who are struggling can find a place for support, and sometimes that means women fall onto different paths than they planned.
Rafferty didn’t grow up intending on starting a homeless shelter. Joining a convent, she taught for over two decades as a Sister of St. Joseph. Eventually, this led her back to Worcester, where she fell into the task force that grew into Abby's House. She left her teaching career and the congregation, and devoted her life to combating homelessness in her hometown.
Abby's House, Rafferty said, is named after Abby Kelly Foster, a famous Worcester abolitionist and women's rights advocate. When Foster traveled the country, she was considered to be too risky for most families to take her in, and ended up sleeping on the streets. When the founders needed a well-known name for the budding shelter, they turned to Abby Kelly Foster's legacy for inspiration.
Although Rafferty has never been homeless herself, she feels personally connected with the women she meets.
“You become part of what they are, even though you’ve had no personal experience. You are the women you are with.”
For more information go to www.abbyshouse.org.