Q&A: Parlee Jones, Abby’s House shelter advocate

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I had never been to Abby’s House. This is either fortuitous, unsurprising or completely inconsequential. One of the three. I’m not sure. No matter, nor time to figure it out, because now I’m there and wondering if I’ll be welcomed.

The outside is ambivalent, neither hiding nor exclaiming its presence — the house is a sprawling facility that temporarily houses and provides services for battered and/or homeless women — on a one-way street surrounded by the serenity of churches and the calamity of road construction. As I lose the race to the door to a little old lady in a fashionable shawl, and follow her inside, the ambivalence disappears. “I have a man with me,” she announces impishly around the corner seemingly certain I’m there for a good reason, yet without having fully turned to size up her visitor.

I’m there to talk with Parlee Jones, an accomplished civic leader who counts herself among the success stories of Abby’s House. Early for our meeting, I wait in the hallway and start to see why there exudes a strong a sense of calm in a place that deals with such chaos.

With multi-colored and time-stained quilts hanging from the walls, silver-painted radiators in the corners, a table bubbling over with portraits of lost loved ones, and mismatched wooden rocking chairs dotting the sitting room, it feels like grandma’s house. There’s even the tempting aroma of a meal simmering around the corner. (And, just before I leave a while later, that nice woman who let me in offers me a piece of chocolate candy for my ride home.)

Jones, though, accounts for much of the calm. Because, she’s on it. Visitors and colleagues take turns hanging from her door frame. There’s always someone who needs help in her office. And few, if any, leave disappointed. Just before our interview started she darted across the hallway empty-handed only to come back moments later — to her office, to whomever she was helping — with her arms full of two family-sized boxes of Cheerios and three plastic shopping bags of necessities.

Parlee Jones is the shelter advocate at Abby's House. Well, that's her day job; we don't have room to list everything else here.

Fred Hurlbrink Jr. / Worcester Sun

Parlee Jones is the shelter advocate at Abby’s House. Well, that’s her day job; we don’t have room to list everything else here.

A survivor of abuse, Jones is among the drivers of citywide efforts to promote Domestic Violence Awareness Month, not to mention a ubiquitous presence on committees and panels from the schools to DCF. We asked her about her substantial work at Abby’s House and in the community, her thoughts on Melinda Boone and whether she’d consider running for public office.

Several years ago, you moved from Worcester to Brooklyn, New York. Why did you come back?
When I left Brooklyn I was facing homelessness, shelter or the projects. And being from Worcester and having two little people — my daughter maybe 2, I had just had my son — and their dad wasn’t doing what he should do, but there was a domestic situation, domestic violence. … I said, “You know what, I’m going back home. I need a better life and I know what Worcester has”. … I don’t know if you’ve been to Brooklyn, but the projects go on and on and on for blocks, and the shelter system is crazy. And homeless just wasn’t an option with two little ones.

My sister had actually gone through the shelter process and she was living in one of the properties that Abby’s had, and Abby’s actually let us double up. After she moved out I continued with the apartment, got back on my feet, moved out on my own again, started working, got everything together, and then I was on the board [resident representative for Abby’s House board of directors]. So that’s the thing about Abby’s House, they love to have a past guest, a past resident on the board of directors to be that voice for that population. And after I did a stint on the board, Tess [Sneesby, resident manager] said, “Why don’t you just come and be our shelter advocate,” and I said, “Well, Tessie, I’ve been a secretary for over 20 years,” and she said, “Oh, you’ll do fine!” So that was about 10 years ago, and I’m still here. So evidently, I did fine!

As a mother of a recent Worcester Public Schools graduate (Jones’ daughter is a freshman at Bucknell) and Worcester Tech senior, what are your thoughts on Melinda Boone in light of her resignation as superintendent?
I was a fan. I would never want her job. I think she did a tremendous job while she was here, but I’m actually happy that she’s going back somewhere that would appreciate her, because I feel like she took a beating from some of the people that should have been supporting her. I’m happy for her; sad for us, but happy for her. … There’s only so much you can do with limited funds, all these ties, have to ask permission for this, this, this and this. … So hopefully they just don’t go back to the good-old-boy system and end up with somebody that has no clue about diversity or anything else that’s happening. It’s a loss. It’s a loss to the city.

When I was in New York, I got knowledge of self, some kind of enlightenment to say, you know, we have to take care of each other.

You seem to be very busy outside of Abby’s House (Jones serves or has served on several boards and committees, works with grassroots groups, is the founder of OurStory Edutainment, and is involved with Black Legacy Presents, among other things). What drives you to be so involved?
Just knowing that everybody is worth having a home; food, clothing and shelter. It shouldn’t be an issue or an option as [to] who should have it and who doesn’t deserve it. You know, we never grow up and say we want to be homeless or we want to be a junkie. It’s just stuff that happens to us along the way, the traumas that we deal with or whatever situation, and — it just frustrates me. Even though I struggle also as a single mom I’m not afraid to use my voice, and if I’m helping myself and I can help other people along the way, I’m all for that.

For me, I feel that regardless of where you come from you need to know your history. You need to know what your grandparents and your great-grandparents, what did they go through to get to this point? Where did they come from, and how did you make it to America? We all weren’t born here, this is native land. So to understand the struggle and know where the systemic racism and whatever other systemic problems came into the picture, it helps for you to move forward because you can un-personalize it and see it for what it is.

Even the whole race issue: it’s like, it’s a class issue; it’s not a race issue. They put the race thing in there to keep us divided, so we wouldn’t come together, poor black people, poor white people, poor Hispanic people, and join hands fighting the real problem, which is the little 1 percent that has all the money and is controlling all our lives.

So, what should we call you: activist, community leader? What words or phrase would best describe Parlee Jones?
Community activist.

And how did you get so comfortable in that role?
Advocating for my children, and supports along the way. When I was in New York, I got knowledge of self, some kind of enlightenment to say, you know, we have to take care of each other, we’re all on this planet for a reason. Is it to be a voice for others? However we can help other people along the way is just where I am.

What are you most proud of in your involvement with OurStory Edutainment and Black Legacy Presents?
Well, this Feb. 6, 2016, I will be having my 10th Bob Marley birthday bash at the Worcester Public Library. So OurStory Edutainment, I think that’s what I’m most proud of along with getting knowledge of black history and black past out to the community. Black Legacy Presents is always a work in [progress], just striving to make sure it’s on TV, [that] there’s some kind of voice on TV from our community. We struggle every now and then, because there’s only a certain number of people that are doing this work in the city. We’re all on the same committees and we all have kids, all have full-time jobs, so just making time for it sometimes is hard. … I’m proud of everything that came out of it.

You won a 2014 Erskine Award (an annual honor bestowed by the YWCA of Central Massachusetts). Who, among the many people you’ve worked with, would you nominate for next year’s awards, someone who maybe has been passed over? And why?
There’s one little friend that I have, and her name is Doreen Samuels and she is a community support person who presently works with Multicultural Wellness [Center]. I call her my little Jamaican friend. This woman is absolutely incredible. She is an advocate. She has a child that has autism. So she went through the system and took care of her children and now she’s helping other people to take care of their kids. And I always say the hardest cases, like the person who has to start from scratch and go up housing, school issues, social security issues, whatever, she can help them through it, and usually she’ll get them what they need. So for me, she’s my [unsung] hero. She just doesn’t get the credit she deserves.

You know, anybody that comes through the door I’m willing to talk to, take time. Listen. Which a lot of agencies don’t really have that, I don’t know if it’s convenience or [they don’t] have the time to do it. But these people are struggling, they’re suffering, so, you know, at least to acknowledge what they’re going through is a huge piece of what I do.

What is a shelter advocate? Describe a typical day.
There are no typical days. There’s no telling what’s going to happen. My job here at Abby’s House is to do intakes for anybody that comes in looking for shelter; and the women that are in our shelter, to make sure they are following their service plan, develop a service plan with them and help them through it, So anybody that comes through that needs clothing or food, or any other services, I usually do an intake with them also. So it can go from absolutely seeing nobody in one day, to having people back to back to back to back.

You never know what’s coming through the door. I work Monday through Thursday and I’ll try and sneak in on a Friday to try and clean my office … and that doesn’t happen. So, you know it could be somebody that had slept on the bench or slept in back of the dumpster. There was actually some mattresses over by our dumpster over there … and there [were] quite a few people that took turns sleeping outside this weekend. There was one woman, that we went and checked on her and everything was OK — she was actually a little upset that we disturbed her sleep and tried to move her along.

You know, anybody that comes through the door I’m willing to talk to, take time. Listen. Which a lot of agencies don’t really have that, I don’t know if it’s convenience or [they don’t] have the time to do it. But these people are struggling, they’re suffering, so, you know, at least to acknowledge what they’re going through is a huge piece of what I do.

What percentage of women seeking help from Abby’s House are experiencing or have been victims of domestic violence?
I would say easily at least 90 percent of the women who come looking for services, even if they’re not right in the mix of a domestic-violence situation, have had some kind of abuse or trauma in their life.

But of course they have to understand what domestic violence is and take care of that part so they don’t blame themselves for the situation. I did an intake with a woman the other day, and she was telling me her story and she was saying how her husband wouldn’t allow her to work, wouldn’t let her drive the car, wouldn’t let her have her own bank account. Wouldn’t let her do this, wouldn’t let her do that — never put his hands on her. So, one of the questions on my intake [forms] is, Have you ever been a victim of domestic violence? And, she said, No. … So, not even knowing that she’s been a victim: you know, cut her off from her mom and her family. So, some people don’t even make that connection to realizing that they are being abused.

What can Abby’s House do better in helping the women and families it serves?
We’re always a work in [progress] trying to do better. I wish we could find more resources, or more housing. I’m always looking for a transitional house, because the need is so great. Having the connections in the community, like I said I have a couple connections, but I don’t have a job connection for women and I don’t have — other than my friends at [Worcester] Community Housing Resources — [enough] safe, affordable housing … not in Worcester anymore. The average woman on Social Security, [if] she’s single, gets between $720 and $780 a month. Where do you live on that? So, for me to be able to serve the women better would be to just have more available services  —  from us, and the whole community.

Do you have a recent success story from a client that you were able to take home and feel particularly good about?
We’re always doing the happy dance in here when we can. And we actually do the happy dance in the hall! One of the women that’s been with us for a while, she’s an older woman — I don’t know, this is a kind of Catch-22 story; it’s a success story but at the same time it speaks to the need for safe, affordable housing … and better landlords. But, we were doing the happy dance, so …

So, we had one woman — who was denied shelter for being $100 over [the maximum income eligibility] — actually got into a program through Worcester Housing Authority and she’ll actually be moving into a subsidized apartment [this past] Friday. Her and her 2-year-old son. And then there was a woman that came in, about four months ago now. So, she was with us and we thought it was going to be quick and easy because she is older. She has some physical disabilities and she was waiting to go into congregate housing through Spencer Housing Authority. So, we’re lingering and you know, case management: She needs this, she needs this, make sure she’s got everything in. So, we’re lingering and, of course, it’s summertime and there’s vacations and there’s this and there’s that. And now we’re getting ready to go into the winter season, so everything kind of extends again. And we get to a point, all right any day now, any minute now, she’s going to go in — then she gets a letter stating that she’s not accepted. So that came, and we were like, What are we going to do now? … Because of people’s past and whatever they’ve had to go through, sometimes there [are only certain landlords we can work with], and he went back and forth with us: He was going to take her, he wasn’t going to take her.

But he did finally take her … and we all did the happy dance.

Is it hard to leave here feeling good about your day?
Yeah. … So, Abby’s, we have a team. My director, myself, the housing advocate and our volunteer coordinator who does, just, everything. And we sit and we talk about things together, so I’m not making a decision on a woman. It’s a team thing. And always a work in [progress], also, is this is all we can do. This is what we can do for you, and as much as I want to do more this is all I can do.

Have you ever felt like you’ve let down any of the women you’ve tried to help?
Yup, that too. But it’s not all on me. It has to be the effort that they’re putting in also. So a lot of times, we have the best-laid plans and I mean sometimes it just falls through. And that sucks, it really, really does. Yeah, that happens, too. I mean we’ve had disappointments here: One time a woman came in to do an intake with me and she asked if she could use the bathroom. She goes to the bathroom, and waiting, waiting … she had [gone] in there and [overdosed]. The ambulance came — she did not die — but she was very upset that they had to rip her sweat-jacket to give her the Narcan. She had an attitude with the EMTs, and I’m like, “OK …”

Do you have a favorite program or event related to Domestic Violence Awareness Month, one that you expect to really resonate with the community?

[Editor’s note: Abby’s House and Daybreak (the YWCA domestic violence assistance provider) are driving forces within the Coordinated Community Response Network, along with the DA’s office, Children’s Friend, a DHCD domestic violence specialist, DCF, Pathways for Change and New Hope.]

Being part of the CCRN network is absolutely incredible. Last year we partnered up to try and do a whole month of activities. And last year was the first year that I did my spoken-word event. It’s actually Tuesday, [Oct.] 27th. So, that I think is my favorite. Again, it’s only the second year, but last year was absolutely incredible. We have women — and men — who share their story in a way that is just this incredible performance. It’s priceless.

And another thing we did for the second year was we hosted a domestic violence awareness luncheon. We were able to invite our partners — like the women from Daybreak, the workers; the women from Worcester Community Housing Resources, and some of the women from LUK [Inc.] come over, our residents, our guests — and we had meatballs and spaghetti. It was absolutely delicious. And we had one of the women talk about her story, and she did some spoken word and actually sang a song. So just to draw attention to it, and awareness and just come together as women.

Have you seen these activities and outreach efforts make a tangible difference?
I’m hoping slowly but surely. … Like I said, this is our second year partnering with them. Last year, we actually showed [the same Academy Award-winning documentary, “Defending Our Lives,” that the group will be screening Tuesday, Oct. 20, at the Worcester Public Library] but because we didn’t have a lot of people, I’m like, “We need to show this again.” We don’t need to rethink the whole wheel. If we know something’s powerful, let’s just do it. [We hope to reach] a couple more people. We’ll see, we’ll see. Ask me next year.

We need a place where people really care about people. Not an institution, but housing; everybody has their own home but we’re part of a real community. There’s not a real community anymore. I grew up where my second-floor neighbor, my third-floor neighbor, they could say whatever they wanted to me and it wasn’t a problem. We cared about each other.

Who’s not aware that domestic violence is a problem, a serious crime?
I think not knowing what it is [is more the problem]. And this new, young generation thinking that: “Oh, he wants to know where I am all the time; oh, he’s picking out my clothes; oh, he’s texting me all the time; oh, he doesn’t like that friend.” Our kids need to know that some of these forms of love, [are] not love. So, educating the youth. I don’t talk to many adults that don’t know what it is. I think we just have to focus on the next generation that’s coming up. And the new immigrants [whose home cultures may view domestic violence differently].

If you had all the money and all the power, what would you make your top priority in battling domestic violence?
I am a big fan of the Harlem Children’s Zone. We have to just deal with the whole family [but focus on the young]. If you’re grown and old, and you’re closed-minded there’s really nothing else I can do for you. So if you feel it’s OK to beat a women or if you feel it’s OK to be mean and horrible to your man I can’t help you, so I would have to move them out of the picture. But anybody who’s willing to learn in a safe, supportive environment, like a village — we need a village! We need a place where people really care about people. Not an institution, but housing; everybody has their own home but we’re part of a real community. There’s not a real community anymore. I grew up where my second-floor neighbor, my third-floor neighbor, they could say whatever they wanted to me and it wasn’t a problem. We cared about each other.

So, I would create a village. Because if you love somebody and you’re willing to try and work through it, try and work through it. But if he doesn’t want to change or she doesn’t want to change, then you can’t be in my village anymore. So, I would want to buy like three blocks — three blocks of some incredible housing and have some organic food stores, not just these little bodegas. … So that’d be what I’d do with a whole lot of money.

Have you ever considered running for elected office in Worcester?
I hate politics. That’s another one of those necessary evils, and I’ve had this question a couple times. I don’t want to work at that level, I want to work with the people. I actually got sucked into the Linda Parham campaign [for an at-large City Council seat], and when she was able to go back into the race, she wanted to have lunch with me and a couple other girlfriends — two of them are actually her campaign managers, and I help as much as I can — but I just, I can’t, I can’t do all that policy stuff.

But I always do tell young people, if you want to make a change in social services and human services, policy is where you make the change. Here — not that it’s the bottom level, but it’s direct service — I can’t make policy change. I can’t say, That $100 [eligibility gap], we’re going to change that limit. … Politics, I have no desire. I’d rather do direct service, with the people.

This article was originally published in the Oct. 18, 2015 edition of the Sun.

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