Commentary: Cruel Treatment Discourages Homeless Women

Commentary by Tenecia Stokes

           The Community Women’s Shelter at 2219 Payne Avenue was opened in February 2004. Previously, women stayed in the gymnasium at the Bishop Cosgrove Center and slept on floor mats. The women were looking forward to a new start, but they came to feel the cost of trading Cosgrove with the problems they faced at the new facility was not worth the change.

            There was a need for the women residing in the shelter to have a “voice” regarding both the treatment they received at the shelter and the conditions of the shelter. Initially we had a good response from the women, even excitement. During the first three meetings we created a four-page list reflecting residents’ concerns.

            The resident committee’s procedure was to hear the concerns, discuss the possible response from the administration, and how to deal with whatever response they received. This worked for a few months until women began expressing that they were feeling as though they were being punished for participating with the NEOCH-organized resident committee. Women spoke of getting thrown out of the shelter for swearing and getting their articles of clothing and personal items thrown away with no explanation other than, “it is a new policy” after the fact.

Meeting the Administration:

            Finally, the women’s resident committee held a meeting face-to-face with the shelter’s administration: “the big dogs.” During this meeting the women discussed the concerns that comprised the four-page list. Residents chose a few major topics to be addressed from the list: a licensed social worker, the need for a television, day of rest and bed rest policy. In the end, the staff decided to form their own resident committee sponsored by staff and add a comment box for anonymous grievances.

            During one meeting, the program director listened, seemingly without interest to the concerns, and commented that she “deals with concerns every day.” I really do understand that there must be a great deal of stress being responsible for an entire operation. But in my opinion, there is a problem when you “deal with concerns everyday,” and your staff is “doing every thing they can,” but your residents still have a four-page list of concerns.

            When dealing with an administration in any corporation, company, or organization of this nature, I would expect there to be a level of faith in and respect for clients, compassion, or at least a high degree of understanding of the problems of homeless women. I am not employed by Mental Health Services, so maybe these things are there. As for what I hear from the residents of the shelter, I get the feeling that the fountain of compassion is running dry.

Ill Prepared for the Population

            I would also expect there to be a screening process for those individuals brought on as new hires. How are they trained for this position at an emergency women’s shelter that is mixed with mental health consumers as well as clients who are not chemically addicted? The director informs me that her staff has had “sensitivity training.” However, sensitivity is not the same as compassion, and I don’t believe compassion can be taught.

            Residents of the Women’s Shelter fear that by talking about the conditions of the shelter they may be penalized or picked on as a result. This fear may be exaggerated, but it is real. I don’t see a reason why a person has reason to fear something that has never happened. There was an air of negativity I detected when sharing the concerns of the residents with the administration.

            For instance, when the women brought forward the desire to have a television as the men do at 2100 Lakeside, the administration suggested that these concerns didn’t matter because the women wouldn’t be staying at the shelter for any length of time. Now, the need for television wasn’t connected to the women’s desire to lounge around and catch up on their stories or their favorite TV show; they wanted to watch the news, see the weather report, and have a connection to the world outside the shelter. The administration responded by supplying the shelter with one newspaper for 135 women. Then there were other simple issues that seem minor to housed individuals but were just ignored by the administration.

The Women at the Shelter

            I have met with quite a few women during my interaction with the Community Women’s Shelter. It is wonderful to report that most of them have moved out of the shelter and into an apartment. When I first came to the shelter I was asked, “What can you do to help us?” Knowing that I could not directly help any one, my stomach dropped and I felt out of place and in the way. But I felt it was important to let the women know that it was not necessary to accept conditions with which they were unhappy, and that they should not be afraid to discuss these issues with the administration or anyone else who might be able to help. The most important thing was for them to speak up about things that they felt were disrespectful or inappropriate.

            These women have been faced with too many hard choices already. There are many families living in poverty and struggling to pay the bills and balance the demands of the light company, medical bills, and the landlord. They pay the bills and sacrifice trash bags, soap, toilet paper, Pampers, lotion, etc. That’s the reality of poverty — sometimes the family chooses between lights at home or food for the family. Some are finally forced to give up and turn to shelters for help.

            Is there help at the shelter? Maybe it depends on which shelter: better hope they have space. Don’t get me wrong, the shelters do not exist to fix all of life’s problems, but they do exist to help people, don’t they? For those individuals who may not like their living situation, please recognize that it could always be worse.

            Shelter staff must offer words of peace and understanding, not judgment and blame. There are some amazing men and women at the shelters. Far too often, they are misjudged, overlooked, and under-appreciated. It may be easier to put down these men and women, treat them with disrespect, ignore them, and disregard them as human beings. I know there is a great deal of frustration and tension expressed by homeless people toward workers, but the workers should expect that and be trained to de-escalate tensions.

            Residents have complained that they have slept straight up all night in a chair, or been told to sweep the “staff only” parking lot and cigarette butts off of the ground. I have heard that women who do not return one night have all of their belongings, identification, and clothing thrown away! The shelter has also been known to suspend people out of the “emergency” shelter for profanity. Women have been cast out on the streets, and not referred to another shelter as the county policy mandates. There are also other unsubstantiated rumors, which we have been unable to investigate because the Community Women’s Shelter has since constructed barriers to disallow independent observers from entering the shelter.

Copyright NEOCH, The Homeless Grapevine #68, February 2005. All Rights Reserved.