No room at the Inn

By Jim Luken

Melton has been at the forefront of the struggle with Western & Southern. Photo: Jim Luken.

Meet Mary Carol Melton.  65. Mom. Passionate and outgoing. Executive Vice President Cincinnati Union Bethel (Anna Louise Inn).

Mary Carol Melton admits to being surprised by the negative decision regarding the Anna Louise Inn (ALI) by Judge Norbert Nadel that came down on Friday, May 4. “I’m sort of an extreme optimist. I saw so clearly that the women should be allowed to live here.”

As most Cincinnatians know, low income women have been living at the beautiful facility in Lytle Park for 103 years. Melton explains those centenary roots:

“I stand on the porch of the Anna Louise Inn and think about the history of the Taft family who responded to a request from Cincinnati Union Bethel. They not only provided the land and the money. They put it in their (the Taft family home’s) own front yard.”

In the lawsuit brought by Western & Southern Financial (W&S), the judge essentially ruled against the Anna Louise Inn and the City of Cincinnati, on the grounds that the City had improperly issued zoning permits for a 12 million dollar renovation that is in the works for the facility, a renovation that was scheduled to begin last summer. Now both parties must go back to the drawing board to resolve zoning issues that everyone believed had been settled a year ago.

Mary Carol Melton, and the women she works with at the Inn, have been devastated by the criticism and the (sometimes nasty) complaints that have come in the wake of the lawsuit. “We just did not expect that any neighbor who has co-existed with us for 100 years would object to us wanting to increase the amenities for the women we serve.” The renovations will in fact decrease the number of available rooms.

The objections of Western & Southern, whose corporate headquarters are located in the Lytle Park quadrant, seem to go deeper than its problems with the renovation. In fact, W&S says it wants to purchase the Inn, which means the agency and its residents would be forced to find a home elsewhere.

This is the reality that bothers Mary Carol Melton most. “I can’t get it out of my mind,” she says. “This is really not about zoning, it is about a large corporation all of a sudden deciding that they no longer want lower income women living in what they perceive to be their neighborhood, that somehow the women aren’t good enough, and higher income people are better. To put this in perspective, until Western-Southern wanted to purchase the building, there was never even one complaint about our women…or the Anna Louise Inn. They claim to be in support of the women and our mission, and yet they would prefer that that be done somewhere else. Why? This really is about the rights of lower income women to continue to live in this area. They enjoy Lytle Park as much as anyone.”

Melton’s passion for her job and for the women who live at the ALI has deep and interesting roots. She was born into a large, well-to-do family in Hyde Park. She spent both grade school and high school at the Summit, an expensive, then all-girl, Catholic school on Grandin Road.

Her dad, Tom Conlan, was a prosperous attorney. Ironically, over the years, one of his major clients was Western & Southern. Mary Carol says that she knows where her father would stand in the current dispute. “If my dad were alive today, he would be leading the group of supporters in speaking out for the rights of the women.”

She knows this because, long ago, her dad came to the aid of another institution under siege regarding zoning issues and violations. In the early days of the Drop Inn Center, Tom Conlan heard about buddy gray and his struggles to get that facility on track. Conlan brought his legal expertise to bear. And, according to Mary Carol, buddy never forgot it.

At Conlan’s funeral, 28 years ago, buddy read something he wrote to honor his friend and defender. It was called “The Fable of the Kindly Man of Justice.” At the end of “the fable” the kindly man—crowded among the poor who are themselves on trial—says, “I sit among these people today, and I will stand with these people in their long days of trial, because with them is justice.”

There are so many improbable ironies in the current struggle for justice swirling around the women of the ALI. One of these has to do with the fact that the daughter of Tom Conlan finds herself in a situation so similar to that of her lawyer dad.

As Mary Carol Melton reflects on all this, she says, “I feel that the message we got from our family (she was the fifth of seven children) is that, when you have been given opportunities in your life, you have a responsibility to contribute to those around you in a positive way. To work for the common good. To use your faculties and your talents wisely, and respect everyone you come in contact with.”

She accesses some of this philosophy in the current confrontation with her corporate neighbor. “The one thing I will say is that I am respectful of the things that Western & Southern has brought to our community. But in this case I respectfully disagree with the notion that the Lytle Park Community would be diminished by the women who live here or who have lived here.” And, she concludes, “I really believe this is one of the finest examples of diversity in an urban neighborhood.”

Mary Carol has been active in non-profit work all her life. But, she qualifies, the thing she is most proud of is being a mom. She and her husband John have two grown children and three grandchildren. 21 years ago, she was a kidney donor for her only son, now 44. The donation process, she says, was “incredible.” And Phil, her son, is still doing fine.

While both Phil and his sister Casey are living out of town, Melton seems to take an almost motherly interest in the women she serves at the ALI. One of the programs at the facility is called,  Off the Streets SM Melton says that more than 30 agencies are involved in trying to help women who have found themselves ensnared in prostitution. “Anna Louise Inn provides a safe place for these women who want to reclaim their lives.”

One of the women, according to Melton, told her recently that the proudest moment of her life was when she got a job and had to pay taxes. “These are women with courageous stories, survivors. To me, they are role models as regards to having the strength and tenacity to bring themselves up (from prostitution).”

The hardest part of her job lately, for Mary Carol Melton, has been to help the women of Anna Louise Inn deal with “some of the awful things” that are being said about them in the local press.

Most all of the women’s neighbors in the Lytle Park are supportive of the women who live at the Inn, according to Melton. When some of the well-to-do neighbors were about to put in an herb garden in a corner of the park, they came and invited the ALI residents to help with the garden.

Judge Nadel’s decision regarding the Western & Southern lawsuit was a huge disappointment for Mary Carol Melton. But in case you might be wondering, she, Cincinnati Union Bethel, and the women it serves are not giving up or caving in. “I don’t think anyone should have to sell their home because somebody else wants to buy it. The building is not for sale,” she says emphatically. “The women do not want to move.

“Our absolute intention is to complete the renovation, and to continue our 103 year tradition of providing safe and affordable housing (for women). We will take the steps necessary to make sure that all the permits are in place for us to do that.”

As the young folks like to say, “You go, Girl.”