Women sad, angry over sale of nonprofit Ohio home


CINCINNATI (AP) — For more than 100 years, the Anna Louise Inn in downtown Cincinnati has been a safe, serene place that thousands of struggling women came to know as home.

But after losing a two-year fight with a Fortune 500 company determined to buy their beautiful, 104-year-old property and turn it into a boutique hotel — even though it wasn't for sale — the women of the Anna Louise Inn have to leave the neighborhood.

While most of the 60 women living there are relieved that the fight with Western & Southern Insurance Group appears over, they can't help but also feel sad and angry.

"I'm upset with them that they would be that greedy to take away what's been here for so long for women," said Robin Howard, 55, who has lived at the Anna Louise for more than two years after fleeing an abusive relationship. "We have rights, too. This is home. It's a safe haven."

For Wendy Gonzales, 25, the Anna Louise has allowed her to escape an addiction to methamphetamine and an abusive husband who she said forced her into prostitution.

"I thank God for the Anna Louise Inn. Without it, I don't know where I would be," said Gonzales, who now works as a housekeeper at a hotel within walking distance. "It's quiet, it's peaceful. Looking out here, you don't see your average thugs walking down the street. ... It's just nice to walk out and know that you're safe."

The Anna Louise has been housing women since 1909 in the same charming, dormitory-style building that looks like a plantation home. Although it began by helping young, ambitious types who were pouring into then-booming Cincinnati, it later became geared toward women who needed a fresh start; some have left abusive husbands, others are transitioning from foster care to adulthood while others are recovering prostitutes and drug addicts.

The historic downtown Cincinnati neighborhood where the women live, known as Lytle Park, became an important part of their recovery, since most were coming from dangerous parts of the city where it'd be easier to slip back into their former ways of life.

Western & Southern executives, whose headquarters sit across a park from the Anna Louise, offered to buy the Anna Louise for $1.8 million several years ago, less than half its value. The Anna Louise declined and won $12.6 million in federal and state tax credits to renovate the home, where some rooms are smaller than 100 square feet and all the women have to share bathrooms and one kitchen.

Days before the renovation was to begin, Western & Southern sued over a zoning issue and a judge ordered an immediate construction halt until the legal fight was resolved. The Anna Louise and its supporters didn't back down, vowing to fight Western & Southern with everything they had — until last week when they inked a deal with the company to sell the home for $4 million.

Leaders at Cincinnati Union Bethel, the nonprofit that runs the Anna Louise, said they sold reluctantly because they couldn't afford to fight any longer.

Under the deal with Western & Southern, the women living at the Anna Louise will stay there until a new building for them is finished, in about two years. It will be located in a shabby neighborhood on a busy street 2 miles north of where they are now. The nearest park is a 1.5-mile walk away, over a freeway.

"Western & Southern had the money to fight and the Anna Louise Inn didn't," said Howard, who is about to receive a degree in social work, which she wants to use to help women flee abusive relationships. "When you have that much money and you want something, eventually you're going to get it."

The Anna Louise will now be among a bevy of properties in the neighborhood owned by Western & Southern, which developed Cincinnati's tallest building in 2011 and has renovated a handful of historic properties in the area, including an upscale hotel.

Company CEO John Barrett has long said it was time for the women at the Anna Louise to leave the neighborhood to make way for economic development. He plans to turn the building into a boutique hotel and envisions transforming the neighborhood into a hub of activity with restaurants and bars.

"This truly is a win for everyone and will make Lytle Park a destination like no other," Barrett said in a Monday news release announcing the Anna Louise sale.

Barrett, who has repeatedly declined requests for an interview, has become a loathed figure at the Anna Louise, not only for his tireless efforts to acquire the property but also for the way he has talked about the women living there, repeatedly referring to them as recovering prostitutes and saying they just don't belong in the neighborhood.

"That hurt. To be categorized," said Sherene Julian, 48, who escaped decades of drug addiction and prostitution when she moved to the Anna Louise. "It made me feel that I was lesser than."

Julian, who recently moved in with her boyfriend but still gets medical services at the Anna Louise, said a part of the women's home will always be with her.

"To me it's sacred ground because that's where I was able to turn my life around," Julian said. "I know for a fact if the Anna Louise did not intervene in my life I would probably be dead."

Tatiana McCormick, 24, who lived at the inn after leaving Ohio's foster care system six years ago, said she's angry about the home's sale.

"A lot of these ladies now have to worry about their living situation," she said. "This was something that was going well for people and it's been there for three generations. To have it happen like this, it's just outrageous."


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