Sharon Higginbothan, PhD (c) gazes out the window of Bethlehem Haven, a shelter for homeless women where she is the director of operations, and looks with pride and hope across the alleyway to Duquesne University. Her pride comes from many years of study in the Center for Healthcare Ethics where she is in the dissertation phase of her PhD program. Her hope comes from thinking about the many women her dissertation will impact both at Bethlehem Haven and on a global scale.
Bethlehem Haven's mission is to take women from homelessness to housing while supporting their ability to become self-sufficient. As Director of Operations, Sharon sees firsthand the daily struggles of homeless women. The organization has ninety five beds ranging from 60 day shelter stays, two year transitional housing and permanent supportive housing all dedicated to women who suffer with chronic mental illness and chronic homelessness. She oversees three separate buildings which are broken up into three different units. The Haven, as it is affectionately called also has a Day Program drop in center where women come daily for meals, toiletries, activities and clothing. There are a host of supportive services that range from a Health and Wellness Clinic to a free legal clinic. The emergency shelter program has twenty eight beds with an additional four cots added during severe weather. There are sixteen beds in the permanent support housing program and the remainder of the housing is for their three two year transitional housing programs. The women that reside at Bethlehem Haven have overcome many obstacles and stay there while going back to school or seeking a job. After their stay many of these women leave to re-establish themselves in their own dwellings and in society. Some of the women have been with Bethlehem Haven for 20 years or more. This is their home.
As Director of Operations, Sharon balances the daily challenge of leadership, administration, and organization for Bethlehem Haven while still caring for each resident on a personal and compassionate level. When she goes home after a long day, she is on call for any emergency that may arise at the Haven. She hopes to have in place an on- call rotation very soon. Sharon credits her faith In God with her ability to achieve this balance while still working on her doctoral dissertation.
Sharon finds that the "quiet weekends" are the best time to do her writing. She gets up very early in the morning and finds that her best writing comes when she feels the Holy Spirit leading her. But, she constantly has a book in her hand and is writing down notes as Dr. Magill teaches in the first research seminar.
The topic of her dissertation is on the violence again refugee women; in particular female genital mutilation (cutting). Since the scope of her topic encompasses so much, she remembers asking God why He would have her engaged in such a daunting topic. She asked him for a sign of why she should pursue this topic. The sign came very quickly in the form of a woman pushing a baby carriage into Bethlehem Haven's Health and Wellness Center who identified herself as a "refugee" from Africa. This was the first homeless woman that identified herself as a refugee during the three years that Sharon had been there. She felt like the Lord was saying, "This is exactly where I want you to be."
Sharon feels that the practice encompasses more than just the cutting; it has to do with dignity and human rights, body integrity and protecting the vulnerable. She is also listening to the voice of the women who embrace this practice. She feels the Holy Spirit nudging her to do work that speaks to the voice of the choice. The refugees whom she is doing her dissertation on and the women that she works with at Bethlehem Haven are considered a "vulnerable" population. This connection between the two groups pushes her passionately forward in both areas that she is called to.
Sharon cherishes the relationship that she shares with her dissertation chair, Dr. ten Have. Over the years she has heard many horror stories about PhD students in other disciplines who had a chair that appeared to work against the success of that student. She feels that Dr. ten Have wants her to succeed and that she can make a contribution to the field. Even though he brings so much expertise to the table, he is not above her but for her. He gives her a place at the table and gives her permission to do what she is called to do in the context of her dissertation while asking her to also think about things in a different way. He is approachable, never demeaning and also supportive. She feels his intellect is embodied in his humanity. She applauds Duquesne for bringing Dr. ten Have to the Center. His work on a global level has played such an important role in giving her the opportunity to explore her dissertation. Global bioethics helps Sharon to respond to people who aren't on the side of privilege and give them a voice.
While Sharon and I spent a few weeks together on and off working on this article, one of the women who lived at Bethlehem Haven for many years passed away. She was thirty six years old and was an immigrant from Africa. . Although this hit Sharon, her staff, and the many women who live at the Haven really hard, she does not despair. She renews her focus and her energies on her dissertation and in her work for that woman. She dedicates this article to her as well.