Sylvia’s Haven: Boston’s Safe House for Women
Sylvia Anthony wipes down the glass on the storm door of her home and women’s shelter known as Sylvia’s Haven. The simple bungalow-style home is in Revere, Mass., about 30 minutes north of Boston and a stone’s throw from the cold, grey Atlantic Ocean.
Anthony, 84, has been providing shelter for women and children for over 27 years. At one point, she ran one of the largest facilities in the country a short drive away at Fort Devens. Today she shares this small, single-family home with four women, two children, and one more on the way.
“It is so very beautiful, and I make it that way,” Anthony says of the neatly decorated home with an ocean view. “I want to lift them up and show them what life should be. People say I make it too nice for them, but I don’t think that way.”
At 10:00 am on a weekday the house is nearly empty. Most of the women who live here work or go to school part time. Only Rene is home, studying in her basement room. She is in her first year of law school and has been staying with Anthony for six months now.
“Rene is a special case, ” Anthony says, recalling a kicking, smiling baby, “Rene was born in my shelter.” Rene’s mother was one of Anthony’s first clients.
“She was the most pleasant thing,” Anthony says. “She has done very, very, well for herself, and she has done it all on her own. God bless her.”
Women can stay at Sylvia’s Haven for up to two years, which gives the women time to get on their feet, according to Anthony. This is much longer than most area shelters, many of which offer stays ranging from one night to six months.
In the early days, Sylvia’s Haven was known as Life For The Little Ones. She accepted only pregnant women, many of whom had been kicked out when their families found out they were pregnant.
Over time she opened her doors to all women, but she has never strayed far from her beginnings.
In a second bedroom is a dental assistant who left her job temporarily when she found out she was pregnant because she feared the effects of radiation on the baby.
“The [woman’s] mother found out she was pregnant, and she didn’t want any part of it,” Anthony says. “Of course she will be sorry later, but that’s beside the point.”
The baby is due in March. Anthony looks wistfully out at the falling snow, remembering all the babies born in her shelter. “In 27 years, they’re grown—they’re married, some of them. God knows where they are.”
Something to Live For
Born in 1929 to Sicilian immigrant parents, Anthony was a product of the Great Depression. She chronicles her life in her recent book, “Till the End of Time,” named after the 1959 hit song by Perry Como.
Unexpected and unwanted by her own parents, Anthony was raised by loving grandparents and a large extended family.
Deeply faithful, Anthony believes this is her mission in life: “It gives me something to live for, and I enjoy it—and as you can see, physically and mentally I’m not hurting, not doing bad for 84 at all, and I know it’s all God,” says Anthony.
Her dream is to open a shelter in every state. She is in the process of buying a larger property in a nearby town.
It has not always been easy caring for those in need. Histories of rape, abuse, and drug and alcohol addiction are common among the women, who must have a counselor certify that they have been clean for one year prior to admission.
Things do not always go as planned. In her book, Sylvia recounts the heartbreaking story of Lena, born to a morphine-addicted mother and chronically abused by her father, the head physician at a local hospital.
After a brief stay at Sylvia’s Haven, Lena relapsed, moved out, and vanished. Stories like Lena’s haunt Anthony to this day: “How do you change that? That is a lifetime of ruination,” she says. “No matter what you do, you’re not going to help.”
But according to Anthony, the good far outweighs the bad. “That is what keeps me going,” Anthony says. “I see so much of the good.”
The challenges faced by her clients leave Anthony vulnerable. In 2012, a neighbor complained to local authorities, accusing residents of using drugs on the premises.
According to Anthony, the complaints were unfounded. “These people gave me trouble when I first moved in,” she says, and after the complaint, “they sent down the health department, and the health department gave it a clean bill of health.”
According to Anthony, it is an issue of ‘not in my backyard.’ “People don’t like that you have homeless people in their vicinity,” she says. “They feel it is taking down their property value.”
Although her neighbors may have given her a hard time, Anthony has been on the receiving end of gratitude from officials and organizations. She received a commendation from President George Bush in 2002. She has also been given several awards including the Arthur L. Whitaker Award, the National Alliance to End Homelessness Recognition Award, Ambassador for Peace award, and the Governor of Massachusetts Recognition Award. In addition, she was named the 2001 Hometown Hero by Boston’s WBZ-TV, and she was chosen as Woman of the Year 2012/2013 by the National Association of Professional Women.
For more information, please visit sylviashaven.org. All proceeds from “Till the End of Time,” by Sylvia Anthony, go to support Sylvia’s Haven.