The Epiphany Center

Fortifying family life through recovery

By Christina Gray
Lead writer, Catholic San Francisco, [email protected]

Kayla Crenshaw gained entrance to a tightly secured, city-run tent encampment in San Francisco’s Civic Center in early October not because she looks like she could be one of its homeless residents — she doesn’t —but in part, because she used to sleep on the surrounding streets herself.

Crenshaw, 31, went from being a healthy young woman from an upper middle-class family in Sacramento with an exciting new job in San Francisco, to a homeless and hopeless drug abuser.

Love was her gateway drug, she said. She fell hard for a man addicted to OxyContin, a prescription pain killer. It led to a years-long “toxic cycle” of drug and domestic abuse, poverty, overdoses, jail time, failed rehab stints and isolation.

“Your body, your brain, everything in you is telling you this is the only thing that is going to make you better, make you happy,” said Crenshaw. “There is nothing fun about being a slave to something.”

She was ill when she walked into a women’s resource center looking for help. She woke up to a kind old lady offering her a sandwich.

“I did not believe in God back then, but I prayed for the first time,” Crenshaw said.

The very next day she got a call from the Epiphany Center, an addiction treatment center for women in San Francisco operated by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. She entered their one-year program.

Today, four years after graduating from Epiphany in 2017 she was hired as lead “navigator” in its new Road to Resilience project.

Kayla Crenshaw

Navigators find pregnant women or mothers of young children known to have a history of substance abuse through word of mouth, referral and even their own instincts as recovering addicts. Many are homeless, or if not, in abusive relationships.

The long-range goal of the project is the prevention of child abuse. By surrounding women with community-based resources, recovery, reunification and independence are more possible.

Crenshaw had come to the Civic Center encampment to see a young, recently pregnant woman who lost her unborn child in a drunk driving accident. She squatted outside the flapping tarps that formed a door, and asked the young woman what she needed.

She gently tells the woman that she can have a better life for herself, if she wants one. She offers herself as evidence. “I have a nice boyfriend now, I live in a nice apartment, I have a cat.”

“We don’t force ourselves on anyone,” said Crenshaw, who ferries women to prenatal appointments, helps them fill out applications for public assistance, offers resources for domestic abuse, connects them to appropriate housing, even brings them food or new underwear.

“In this job I think it’s about just showing up and being consistent with people. Because that’s what they are lacking.”

History of response to the needs of the times

The Epiphany Center has a long history of Catholic response to the needs of vulnerable women and children in San Francisco — first orphans, then unwed mothers, and now, drug and alcohol-addicted women and their children.

Its mission is fundamentally the same today as it was when seven sisters with the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul sailed into San Francisco in 1852. They opened an orphanage after a cholera outbreak swept through the Gold Rush boomtown. The larger Mount St. Joseph Orphan Asylum opened in 1862.

In 1921, the order opened St. Elizabeth Infant Hospital for unwed mothers at 100 Masonic Ave. In 1976 Mount St. Joseph merged with St. Elizabeth Infant Hospital into one agency. In 1986, at the request of San Francisco’s Department of Public Health, a residential program for infants › exposed prenatally to drugs was added to support the possibility of reunification with their mothers.

In 1993, Mount St. Joseph-St. Elizabeth began providing outpatient addiction recovery services to women with young children under the name Epiphany Center for Families in Recovery.

In 1995, Epiphany began providing bilingual, in-home parenting support and education to at-risk families with young children. SafeCare teaches parents the skills required to raise children in safe, healthy and loving environments.

In 1999, the Epiphany Center became a federally funded, residential treatment center for women. A Victorian house on Broderick Street was remodeled to accommodate 12 women and their children. Today the home serves as a transitional “step down” residence for Epiphany graduates and their children as they move out on their own.

Among “America’s Best Addiction Treatment Centers”

“A core part of our business here is changing the lives of children by changing their mothers’ lives,” said Daughter of Charity Sister Betty Marie Dunkel, executive director of Epiphany Center for the last four years.

“Graduates” often thank Epiphany staff, she said, for “helping me be the mother my child needs me to be.”

In August, Newsweek magazine named Epiphany Center in their ranking of “America’s Best Addiction Treatment Centers.”

Sister Dunkel, a Daughter of Charity for 58 years, has a master’s degree in both social work and public administration.

“We are giving women and babies new beginnings,” said Sister Dunkel of the family-focused services helping women heal from the traumas of addiction, homelessness and domestic violence. “Our goal is to help families build healthier futures for themselves and their children.”

Between residential treatment and transitional treatment, Epiphany Center’s staff of 53 is currently serving about 30 women with children and without, she said.

Women in residential treatment programs receive individualized counseling, participate in recovery groups, cultivate communication and independent living skills and develop a relapse-prevention plan.

Mothers receive therapeutic childcare for their children under the age of 3 in the Parent-Child Center, which focuses on strengthening the parental bond. Epiphany’s Mental Health Clinic treats children experiencing stress due to the disruption of family unity or other traumas, and works with families to achieve the goal of reunification.

A satellite pediatric clinic of Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital & Trauma Center provides medical services.

“We are here to take care of a population that has lost their homes in so many ways,” said Sister Dunkel. “We are a place that gives hope, that gives healing for those who seek it and work for it.”

“Susie,” a 2016 Epiphany Center graduate found both.

“At Epiphany, I felt, for the first time in my life, the feeling of being home, the feeling of safety and stability,” she said.

Denise, also a 2016 graduate, said she was a “suicidal, mean drug addict,” when she arrived. She experienced “pure, unadulterated love” for the first time at Epiphany Center.

“Epiphany took care of me until I was ready and able to take care of myself, which saved my life,” she said.

Opioid crisis, new interventions

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that drug overdose deaths in the U.S rose almost 30 percent between 2010 and 2020.

San Francisco, like other parts of the country, has seen a rapid recent increase in drug overdoses due to the proliferation of the synthetic opioid fentanyl which is 50 times stronger than heroin, according to a report on Substance Abuse Trends through 2019 published by the San Francisco Department of Public Health in 2020.

Road to Resilience: a new invitation to recovery

Thanks to a state grant awarded to only 10 addiction centers in California, the Epiphany Center was able to introduce the community-based Road to Resilience project in 2019.

Crenshaw and Jamie Lang, another Epiphany graduate, are the face of the program. They work long days and nights to help move pregnant and/or addicted women and children off the streets or out of abusive homes.

As a recovering drug addict, Crenshaw said she knows where to look for women in hiding and how to gain their trust.

“Hey, I’ve been there,” she said. “I am able to encourage them in a different way that feels less like they are being attacked or judged and more like they are being seen and heard.” ›

Megan Geary, program director for Compass Family Services called the women referred to her through Road to Resilience, “some of the most fragile clients we see, mostly street-based and/or chronically homeless and often on the verge of giving birth without a safe place to go.”

Navigators traveling to encampments and other unhoused community settings in the city meet the needs of service providers “often desperate to help households get connected to services.”

Claudia Mendez with San Francisco Child Protective Services said navigation of mothers into support services has helped her “advocate for families that qualify to stay together.”

Sister Dunkel is full of resolve to find continued funding for the project once the grant ends in 2023.

Epiphany Center is supported by federal, state and city funding, foundation grants, individual and corporate donors, volunteers such as the Epiphany League and local faith communities.

“We are going to have to find other sources of funding for it because it’s too valuable of a service for women to do without and I think we do it well,” said Sister Dunkel.

A Foundation for Life

Sarah and Julian MacDevitt with daughter Avery.

“I came to Epiphany Center with literally the clothes on my back,” said Sarah MacDevitt, a statement hard to reconcile with the sight of her in her comfortable Pittsburg home, her husband Julian at her side and their 3-month-old baby Avery between them.

The 34-year-old New York native started doing drugs at 15, starting with marijuana and cocaine. At 17 she was a “full-blown heroin addict.”

MacDevitt said she can’t blame her drug and alcohol use on family trauma.

“I’m an addict to the core,” she said. “I tried it and I liked it and I never wanted it to stop.”

Her father with whom she lived sent her to live with her mother in Pacifica at 19 after she stole money from her stepmother to buy drugs.

She became homeless soon after moving into her own apartment in San Francisco. She invited a stranger in to do drugs with her and he stole her every cent.

“I couldn’t pay for my rent and maintain my drug habit,” she said.

Days before her 22nd birthday MacDevitt fell out of a third-story window, breaking both legs. She was trying to sneak into her roommate’s room to steal her pills.

“The kicker is, I still had pills,” she said. “I just didn’t want to run out.”

By the time she entered Epiphany Center’s addiction treatment program in 2014, MacDevitt had been homeless for three years.

“They taught me how to be a person again,” MacDevitt said of Epiphany. After living on the streets she had lost track of the most basic self-care needs, like brushing her teeth. The Epiphany Center’s dental program replaced her broken and decayed teeth and with them, gave her more reasons to smile.

In treatment groups she learned to identify triggers to her drug use, and to develop a relapse-prevention plan.

“It gave me a foundation for life after program,” she said.

Before leaving the program, MacDevitt’s vocational counselor suggested she consider court reporting.

She surprised herself by graduating faster than any other student in the school’s history, passed her state exams on the first try, and has been employed in her profession for four years now.

She married Julian MacDevitt, another recovering addict, and welcomed Avery this past summer.

“I don’t have words to express the gifts that Epiphany Center has given me,” she said.