HIV and AIDS opened its doors in August, 1992. Bethesda House began as a shelter for women and children, but realized quickly that families sometimes include fathers. The residents of Bethesda House are primarily single women with children. Over time, the resident population has expanded to include every type of person. Carol Smetzer, Executive Director of Bethesda House lists, "We've got trans-gender families. We've got lesbians. We have some single gay men, and some single straight men. The family with children has first priority, and it goes in a descending order from there. Our definition of family has evolved. Now we say, we're all children of God, and as such, are members of one Holy Family, so that let's everybody in."
Sponsored by The Salvation Army, Bethesda House is located in downtown Los Angeles. It occupies two full floors of a three story building. They can house up to 16 families with a total of 64 beds. All rooms are located on the 3rd floor and each has a private bath. The 2nd floor is the community living area, the TV, dining room, and kitchen (with a very friendly and wonderful cook). There's a large, well-equipped playroom full of toys and games. There's a good-sized playground just outside the playroom. The most children they've ever had at one time was 26. Carol looks back at that time fondly, "It was fun. It was lots of fun." While we're talking, a mom comes into Carol's office, looking for her four-year-old who likes to play hide & seek. Carol peeks under her desk, laughing. The children know this is their home and appear to have the run of the place. Bethesda House takes all kids, from infants through teenagers. Many shelters won't take adolescent boys. Bethesda doesn't exclude anyone.
The only requirement for entry into Bethesda House is that one member of the family tests HIV positive. Most people are referred to Bethesda House by a social worker or case manager from one of the AIDS organizations in Los Angeles. A potential resident's first stop is in the office of social worker, Mickie Robbins. "I do a pretty extensive intake. I explain the program to people and go over the rules and policies. We are alcohol and drug-free, so we talk about that right up front and make sure that's something people are willing to and try and live by. Additionally, they must have TB clearance through a chest x-ray and a PPD. test prior to admittance. And when that all goes okay, people just move in."
The people use Bethesda House as their home and go out during the day to take care of business. They go to medical appointments, support groups or work. The children attend local schools.
"People are welcome to stay here as long as they want. Generally, they stay four to six months while they are waiting to get Section 8. The only reason we have asked people to leave is if they weren't alcohol or drug free. We can help them get into a rehab program and get clean."
Mickie tries to find out what each resident's needs are and gets them into the system, for both medical and social services. Bethesda House provides access to a variety of support services. A therapist from Homeless Health Care comes to Bethesda House on Monday. Consenting residents, are referred to him, when needed. If someone wants counseling he or she can continue to see this therapist, or meet with someone off-site.
There's a women's support group at the House once a month. Most of the women attend a peer support group at Women Alive in Culver City, where they also get child support services from WomensLink. Various twelve-step meetings are held at Bethesda House. People with a substance misuse history can enter a program only two blocks away at Homeless Health Care.
"One of our biggest needs has been to find counseling for young children. We try to give them love, attention and support, and try to help them get their feelings out," Mickie says with concern and compassion.
Carol Smetzer has been with Bethesda House from the very start. As they were the first Shelter for families with AIDS, theirs has been a process of learning, growing and adapting. They are in the process of getting their licensing for Residential Care for the Chronically Ill, with hopes of turning the first floor into a hospice for the residents.
"It took us a long time to make that decision, because we have so many children here we thought it might be too traumatic for them to see this kind of patient. But what we found out is that it's more traumatic to not see them. If they're living here as a unit and a member of the family gets really ill, they could remain here. Now, if someone gets sick, they have to leave. That's been really tough."
Activities are a large part of life at Bethesda House. HIV education, nutrition and all types of trainings are held for both residents and staff. There are various groups along with bingo, arts & crafts, ceramics, knitting, yoga, etc.. "We also camp up in the mountains four times a year. We load up the busses and take everybody." Carol knows that nature has a healing effect on all the residents.
Right now, there are 19 adults and 12 children living at Bethesda House. "The kids have a great time. Most moms and families are isolated on the outside, but they come here and there are all these people they can relate to. They have support and total acceptance. On school nights, the kids have to be in their rooms at eight o'clock. The moms put the kids to bed and sit outside their rooms and talk. Often they rub each others feet, or each others head, and sometimes they sing their cultural songs. It's really beautiful. But," Carol continues, "Not that we don't have our fights and quarrels, because you get to be like family." "We're proud of what we do here. We've broken all the barriers. We do what other people say they can't do. We do what we have to do to get the job done." Carol raves, "I have the world's greatest staff, they are so caring, so loving and so underpaid."
This is the essence of Bethesda House, which means "healing pool," for it's a genuine place of loving and caring, the two primary ingredients for healing both the body and spirit.
If you want to find out more about becoming a resident of Bethesda House contact Mickie Robbins, at (213) 896-9155).
This article was provided by Women Alive. It is a part of the publication Women Alive Newsletter.