Ninety years of sheltering destitute and abandoned women
Updated: Feb 11
In 1923 wealthy socialite Frida Hartley left London for Johannesburg to open a shelter for destitute women, a solid one-storey brick building in Bellevue. Today that building is still a refuge for the penniless and abandoned, while its sister Bethany Home helps victims of abuse.
In 1923 wealthy socialite Frida Hartley gave up her comfortable life in London and headed to Johannesburg, where she opened a shelter for destitute women, a solid one-storey brick building in Bellevue.
Ninety years later the Frida Hartley Shelter is still solid, standing in a quiet, jacaranda-lined street of modest houses and small blocks of flats. And its doors are still open to penniless and abandoned women, some of them pregnant, and their children.
The home is specifically for destitute and homeless women; abused women and their children are taken in by its sister shelter, Bethany Home in nearby Bertrams.
“She wanted to make a difference to women in Africa,” says Bridget Edwards, the manager of both shelters.
“These are women abused in a different way,” says Edwards. “They are often just homeless, for circumstantial reasons.”
The shelter can house up to 27 women and children, but currently has 12 women and 13 children. They are allowed to stay for up to six months, during which time they are expected to find jobs and alternative accommodation. Often, with Edwards’s intervention, they reunite with their families.
They are also given transport money to help them look for jobs, as well as advice on compiling a CV and doing well in job interviews.
As with many non-profit organisations, funding is always a problem. Edwards says they rely entirely on the private sector, getting generous donations from corporates and trusts, churches, Rotary, the Freemasons, and “wonderful Johannesburg individuals and families”.
“I love Johannesburg. The people are the most amazing, generous people.”
Love and prayer
Edwards, a slim and sprightly 59-year-old, says two things make both shelters work: love, and prayer. The women often come from abusive homes, where there is no structure to their lives, and as a result have no self-esteem. “No one has ever told her she is loved.”
They get plenty of love from the shelter staff, with affectionate names like “my baby”, “sweetheart” and “my darling” flowing naturally from Edwards. “With enough love, enough encouragement … love conquers all,” she says. And that love keeps her going too. “I absolutely love it to see the end product. To see them fly, is just most rewarding.”
That “end product” is women who have new skills and jobs, some of them in their own businesses. One now has a stall at a local market, others are seamstresses, another has her own hairdressing salon, and one has her own upholstery business. Others are housekeepers and security managers. Edwards’s biggest success stories include two who are studying – one electrical engineering, and the other financial management at the University of Johannesburg.
Sometimes, before women can begin to rebuild their lives they have to get the basics, such an ID book. This can take Edwards up to two years to obtain. Now she only takes in women who already have IDs. Others have to be taught to read and write. Then companies come to the party, sponsoring the women and teaching them a skill. “The women are amazingly stoic, beautiful people.”
The children are put into private schools, as public schools are usually full.
Edwards spends most of her time at the larger Bethany Home for abused women, which can accommodate up to 54 women and their children, but currently has 26 women, and 25 children. There, she says, she experiences “so many miracles on a daily basis”.
She recounts a time when the staff lost the keys to the craft cupboards. After searching fruitlessly they prayed in a circle, and shortly afterwards the keys were found. Another time, she says, she had a sick child but could not get hold of the doctor. Fifteen minutes after praying the phone rang – with the doctor on the other end. “God is so great,” she says. “Thousands and thousands of miracles happen. We pray for funding and it happens.”
Edwards does intensive counselling with the women and children at Bethany Home, to help them recover from abuse. She says her job is hectic, full of “real highs, and real lows. It is the most incredible work.” Abuse and violence against women is on the increase, she believes. “The family value system has broken down.” Sometimes, when women fall pregnant their male partners throw them out.
She tells of a 22-year-old whose boyfriend, when she fell pregnant, abandoned her to go overseas. Her mother was dead, and she had fallen out with the rest of her family. After Edwards’s intervention she now lives with her aunt, who will support her when she has the baby.
Edwards has been working at the Frida Hartley Shelter for eight years, and at Bethany Home, which opened in 1989, since 1999. Before that she ran a preschool, and then did private counselling from home.
“The wounds heal,” she says of the abused women who come to Bethany. “Once the emotional healing is accomplished, we give them training, and help to find them jobs and a place to stay.” According to Edwards it takes 12 to 14 months to rehabilitate the women.
Bethany Home is clearly a place of healing, bustling with positive energy. Two women are in the sewing room making quality picnic blankets and aprons. A craft room produces jewellery. An upstairs balcony is now a hairdressing salon. Other women cook and sell their food to companies in the area. Others sell disposable nappies, or hairpieces.
“Our craft is becoming well known in the community, and we have been invited to sell to many organisations, churches and schools over the past year,” says Edwards.
“It’s a humming business,” she adds. It’s also a happy place, where women smile and laugh a lot.
One of her success stories is 36-year-old Izzy Moabi. Escaping an abusive relationship several years ago, she came to Bethany with her child and stayed for a year. “I received healing before I started afresh,” she says.
Moabi has worked as a house mother at the Frida Hartley Shelter since 2009. “I love working here. There was a time when I was destitute. That prepared me to understand what it was like to be destitute.”
She had a job but couldn’t find a place to stay, and her life just spiralled downward. But in six months she recovered. “I managed to forgive myself, him and everybody,” she says. “We blame ourselves, and say to ourselves: ‘I did something wrong, I should have respected him more’. We look for excuses for them and say, ‘I deserve it, I was not behaving properly.'”
Moabi says the hardest part of her job is when residents don’t keep to the rules of the house, and in dealing with women who are in denial. But the best part is “when people who are emotional and free to talk to us and have faith and hope to go out and make it again, and get back on their feet”.
Another former resident, who declines to be named, is now working as an administrator and part-time nail technician at a beauty salon. In the Bethany Home pamphlet she writes: “Thank you for the person that I’ve become, I learn to depend on myself and not let anyone bring me down.” She spent a year at Bethany Shelter, then got a waitressing job and soon moved on to store manager, before working in beauty salons. “I’m going strong and nothing is going to clip my wings and it’s all thanks to Bethany.”
In 2013, 23 women have been rehabilitated at Bethany, and with jobs and homes can now fend for themselves and their children. One is a receptionist, three have done a hospitality course, another is an administrator, two are cleaners, one is a bookkeeper for a doctor, another a preschool teacher and another a cook at the preschool. Two more are working at an upholstery factory, learning the craft.
Edwards says former residents often call by to say hello, and one calls her at least twice a week to chat.
She’ll stay in her job, she says, until she drops. Or “until the passion goes”.
“This job requires a lot of energy, and passion from God,” she says. “It takes an incredible amount of compassion and understanding. The biggest thing is unconditional love, a lot of patience and a love for people.”
She does have disappointments, but when they happen, she “gives them to God”, and moves on. She says there is no room for baggage, because the women she sees have plenty of baggage which needs to be unpacked.