Mary Ellen Mitchell: From House to Home


Five years ago, Mary Ellen Mitchell co-founded Lydia's House with her friend Meridith Owensby and husband, Ben Eilerman. Mitchell was expecting her second child and Eilerman, an architect, had a full-time job. Both Mitchell and Owensby had left their positions with local nonprofits. It wasn't, Mitchell acknowledges, an ideal time to be starting a nonprofit organization.

But they felt a call to help women in poverty, to set up a transitional home for women in crisis in the Catholic Worker tradition.

“I just knew I would always feel I had not done this thing I was created to do if I just lived the life that was easy enough to live,” Mitchell said.

Since opening its doors in 2014, Lydia's House has become the epicenter of a growing community. The organization bought a crumbling eight-unit apartment building last fall just down the street from the original and always full Lydia's House, and hopes to renovate the building into clean, safe, affordable housing. Mitchell talked recently with Women of Cincy about founding Lydia's House, its continuing mission, and what it can tell us about poverty in our region.

Interview by Hillary Copsey. Photography by Aurore Fournier.

Tell me about Lydia's House, the name. Where does that come from?

In the Book of Acts, Paul and his people are traveling through Greece. They stop to rest and they meet a woman named Lydia, who is a dealer of purple cloth. They baptize her, and she says something like, “If you count me as a believer, come stay at my home.” We knew we wanted to open a house of hospitality for homeless women. We didn't want to be pigeon-holed into a certain narrative; we wanted our narrative to be hospitality. The character of Lydia, her narrative – more than being about oppression or childbearing – it's about welcome.

What does that mean in practice?

The foundation is about relationships. If we're just collecting our government grant and providing services... We see that happening all over the city, and we see how it leaves poor women with the job of engaging in social services. That becomes their work without anyone being invested in them as people. We don't want to replicate that.

So, here, you're saying, “These are women who need our help. How can we help them?”

And: How can they help us? The Catholic Worker House tradition has always been about mutuality. This is our shared table. We eat here together. We share life here together. My life is richer for this. Contrast that to a lot of what's happening in the system, which often becomes a very clear client-service relationship, and what we hear from women is that it's dehumanizing. For us, at the center of this is humanity.

What do volunteers and guests find at Lydia's House?

I think we all feel like this is a place where we can share life with people in need, and it is mutual. For a volunteer, it's not just standing behind the line in the soup kitchen. I think in our best imagining of volunteering, we all imagine a place where we can bring our unique gifts to someone in need, and Lydia's House tries really hard to be that place.

"We asked guests: If we were to offer you more, what would you want? The most consistent feedback we got was that the women feel lonely. What they need most is social support. What they want are friends."

One of our guiding values is beauty. We try to make this not only a safe space, but a beautiful space. We spend extra time and energy on details, like the quality of the food, having fresh flowers on the table, having original art. When Ben designed the space, I would constantly say, “I want this to be a place where I want my family to be. I want to want to hang out here.” It makes it really unique.

Also, we say Lydia's House has become like a church. We have a monthly worship service, but the reason I say it's like a church is that almost all of the women who come here come back. We've become this kind of epicenter of community for them, the place they go for hard times but also the place they go to be celebrated. They call us and ask us to pray for them. They text us and share when they get a job or an apartment. A lot of the functions that historically a church played for people – a place to gather, a place to celebrate, a place to mourn – Lydia's House has become that for our guests and our volunteers.

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What do the guests need? What are you helping them through?

When we're designing our new building, as with all things Lydia's House, we want it to be uniquely centered and to grow out of an organic need. We bought the building because we heard from guests that they were not thriving in the housing situations they were moving into, whether it was public housing or moving in with relatives where many of the conditions that caused the crisis were being replicated. So we bought the building because we wanted to take the spirit of what we were offering here and let it continue into a long-term housing situation.

"Family homelessness is a hidden tragedy. The family homelessness in our city is huge and it's hidden, because most families who are homeless are not living in the street."

We did a Design Impact project to really get underneath guests' need, and try to determine how we were going to program the building. We asked guests: If we were to offer you more, what would you want? The most consistent feedback we got was that the women feel lonely. What they need most is social support. What they want are friends. While on one hand that really shocked me – I really thought they'd say, I want better childcare, I want a better job – ultimately, when I think about the hardest times in my life, it's been when I've felt lonely.

Women need community. I think that, but there are studies that show that. What [guests] really loved about Lydia's House is the community, and what they're most sad about in their new housing situation isn't gunshots or lack of access to a grocery store; it's isolation. That's a really hard problem to solve. But yet, we already thought that was our strongest gift.

How did you find this house?

It was an estate sale. It had been on the market for awhile and it was yard sale day in Norwood. Both Ben and I were looking for a house, and I knew I wanted to do this idea. We came in, and I was like, “Oh, this is way too much for us personally! We would cripple under this renovation.” It was in such bad shape. But after I saw it, I knew that it was Lydia's House.

We looked at other houses, but I could never let go of this house. We approached the owner five times with offers. The first thing, we asked is if she'd donate it; she wouldn't. Finally, we agreed on $40,000. We'd raised $20,000 at a fundraiser at a church in Walnut Hills, and Ben, Meridith, and I put our own money in. What was left was about $10,000. Just as we were closing, an anonymous cashier's check came in the mail for almost the exact amount we needed. It was February 13. I remember Meridith came to the door, and we were in the street and she said, “You won't believe what came in the mail.” And we opened this thing. It's literally a cashier's check – no name. If it had been lost in the mail, it would have just disappeared. It was just many confirmations amidst a lot of really hard work that this was meant to be.

How do you sustain Lydia's House?

We're very frugal. This is just a Catholic Worker value. Most years, our expenditures have been under $80,000. We have no debt. We have a strong base of monthly donors – regular people who give $10, $20, $30 per month. We have a few churches who are strongly committed to us. We don't have a ton of in-house volunteers. We try to follow the principles of trauma-informed care; we want to make this a safe space.

What will happen at the new building? How does that play into the future of Lydia's House?

One of the reasons we wanted to buy a building in proximity to the original Lydia's House is because we were having constant requests to come back. We were sending volunteers all over town to do transportation. We have guests who want to come to dinner, to our monthly party. Proximity, God willing, is going to meet the need, but we know that's not enough. People can live next to each other for 20 years and never talk. So in the design, we want to include some community space. We have a vision that in-house, there will be a community coordinator. We would love for that person to be a former guest.

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Do you have a timeline for the new building?

We would love to be open by fall 2018. It is a very ambitious timeline.

Do you know what rent will be?

We've been talking about a rent of $375 per month, which would make it affordable to someone who is earning 30 percent annual median income. That's what we want it to be, but we also know that still will be really challenging based on the women who have moved out of here. It will have to be subsidized.

What can Lydia's House tell us about our region in general?

Family homelessness is a hidden tragedy. The family homelessness in our city is huge and it's hidden, because most families who are homeless are not living in the street. We had one family who has had 30 addresses in the last few years. They're constantly moving; they're constantly in crisis.

The book Evicted started to highlight what is happening: that you have families moving constantly, and their whole life becomes finding housing. There's another book out called $2.00 a Day and it, too, is really highlighting that the struggle for survival for women with children is really all they can do. Many, many women are living not only in a constant housing crisis, but with zero dollars. There's no way to maintain employment or get assistance when you don't know where you're living. We have the money, through TANF and the community block grant, that could move into the hands of these women, but instead we choose to use it on several layers of bureaucracy that leave women with children living in isolation with zero dollars. When you have zero dollars, you can't even get on a bus. The only way they're surviving is because Ohio is generally slow to take away food stamps. Their only source of currency is food stamps.

"We're not saying we have to solve it. But when no one else will help, we say, “We're not leaving you here.”

It's very hard to make friends or be in relationships with people when your first place of interaction is crisis. We've all had a friend like that, who's always in crisis, and you don't stay friends with that person. I think there are systemic changes that we could make to the way housing and benefits are administered that would alleviate this. But that's not the whole story. People are more than housing and benefits.

But don't put them in housing and take away all their benefits. A big piece of what we do is after-care, crisis intervention. One of our clients called and said, “I can't care for my child anymore,” and the girl came to live with me and Ben. I don't want to put it all on the system. We all have to be a piece of this. But we see the systems failing. That mom – we had called JFS several times and said she can't care for this child, and they didn't do anything. I think we're different than most social service agencies. We're not saying we have to solve it. But when no one else will help, we say, “We're not leaving you here.”

You're a small enough community that you can do that.

It doesn't scale up. That's a really hard place we're in right now...we see so much need. We want to speak to the need and offer solutions and we want to take on more housing, because we want these families to have better lives, but we can't take on everything. It's a really defining moment for us. We have really powerful testimonials from women that their lives were significantly better for living here. But if Lydia's House had 30 families, we couldn't do this anymore. We have about 55 families in post-care and we have about 70 percent that stay in touch.


How do you balance this work and mission and your family life? Your husband is involved here, too. You have three kids. How do you do it?

Well, 2017 was a really hard year. Part of what makes this work is my family is really integrated here. The kids play at our house. Our kids play here. The core leadership group here really cares about and supports our family. When we were developing this, a big piece of it was how do we create an organization that is a whole place for a woman to work, that can integrate family? What we decided was that, for at least a year, Ben would leave his job and we would both be working at Lydia's House only. We're essentially sharing one salary. By doing that, we've added a tremendous amount of flexibility to our schedule for the many pieces of child-juggling, pickup, dropoff, extracurriculars, daycare, and all of it. My kids' ages span from 1 to 8.  We've built a strong network of support. Ben's parents also live in the region and they've been really supportive. Part of 2018 for us is what does this look like for our family moving forward?

Do you have any insight on why those networks are lacking for so many people?

We talk about this a lot. We also do a lot of reading, trying to stay up on things. About 50 percent of the women we served spent part of their childhood in foster care. If you think of that as a launchpad to community, it's not much of a launch. About 50 percent have mental health diagnoses. And about half have come out of an abusive relationship. So, those demographics are particularly isolating.

I don't think we can talk about the specific way we interact with social isolation and alienation without talking about race. The majority of poverty is happening in families headed by single African-American women. The path for inclusion in our city is a particularly important one. I don't hear women say, “I feel welcome here.” I think there's a really unique level of social isolation that's happening. I also think there's a particular hatred in our society for single black moms who have children outside of marriage. There isn't a real desire to include these women in Cincinnati's renaissance. The hope is that they will disappear.

What woman has influenced your life the most?

It's hard to limit that to one person. That's part of the deal. We're operating in community. As a peer, probably Meridith. Neither of us would be able to do this journey without the other. I think that is a way that women quintessentially work. We're better together. Meridith is – no doubt about it – the better person for the guest care. And when people come back, they often come back because they have a deep love of her. People love people. It's been really humbling to be the more public face of this; there would be no Lydia's House without me. But it wouldn't make sense without Meridith.

In terms of just keep going and get it done, I'd have to say my grandmother. Her name is Evelyn. She's 88 and she still works. She owns the Dairy Freeze in Arkansas. She's the strongest person I know. She just broke her hip and she takes her walker and puts herself in the car and drives to work. She's been running a vocational rehab program for 30 years, though she doesn't know it. She just employs the scrappiest bunch and runs this restaurant. She's had two of her four children die of cancer. We have her picture – we have this wall of her and my mother and Ben's mother, and I show my daughter and say, “This is your legacy.” Just really strong, passionate, eccentric women.