Shelter is what the word implies: protection. In the case of anyone fleeing intimate partner violence, it's hardly a vacation or an avoidance of responsibility. The thing an emergency shelter does is literally save lives.
"The very reason why this shelter exists is the most dangerous time for a victim is when she's preparing to leave or when she has already left the situation," says Theresa Singleton, director of protection from abuse services at the YWCA. "If you have an opportunity to look back at domestic violence homicide, you will learn that virtually every single victim of domestic violence homicide already left or (was) in the process of leaving. Just by virtue of having this facility in a confidential location with the security we have, which obviously we can't describe, helps to keep women alive. Everything else is icing on the cake."
The YWCA shelter is only for women. While it has received only one request to shelter a male victim, the YWCA is ready to help anyone who needs to escape the complicated cycles of abuse and violence in the home (see "Home Is Where the Hurt Is," issue of Sept. 5).
Courage to leave
To survive the physical and/or emotional beatings, deprivation and degradation that are part of abuse, the abused already has amazing strength. To move into a shelter with upwards of 60 strangers in the midst of their own escape from violence takes something more -- courage.
"I think it's brave, it really is brave," says Singleton, who started her career as an advocate/volunteer in the battered women's shelter she now helps run. "It takes a lot of courage to come into a shelter when you've never experienced shelter before and really don't know what to expect. Staff can describe it but it's still scary."
All that emotion running high is a combustible combination, but the only thing that will result in a woman being asked to leave is physical violence; that's not tolerated.
"The shelter environment is a tough one," says Stacey Hall, the shelter's director. "It's a crisis-oriented environment. You have people from all walks of life coming in here, into one house and tremendous levels of stress that the women coming to shelter bring. We are an emergency shelter; we try to keep them in around 30 days. In that 30 days we have to address everything from safety planning to employment to housing to school issues for the children if they're switching schools to making sure they have adequate food and clothing to the more complicated -- mental health, social service counseling, longer term supports."
From the moment a woman walks through the door -- the shelter can't go pick her up but they can help arrange transportation if asked -- the clock starts ticking.
In addition to providing a place to sleep, three meals a day and one snack, clothing, toiletries, laundry facilities and supplies, knowledge about available social services and emotional support in the form of caseworker meetings -- hopefully within 24 hours of arrival -- and arranging time for informal meetings with peers, the shelter needs to help each person individually.
"People come from all different backgrounds, and each situation is a little bit different," Hall says. "Part of what we have to do is assess where the person is at, assess what resources they have within their own support system and go from there. The reality is a lot of the people we work with are not just leaving with their clothes on their back, which would be leaving at zero. They're leaving in the hole ... with all of these other barriers in addition to the realities of intimate partner violence and that impact on the woman.
"For someone who's been kept in the house, who doesn't have a job history, who didn't finish high school, we're going to be starting on a much more basic level. We're going to be starting with literacy, with GED, with some really fundamental skills to get employment that we might take for granted, while we're dealing with all of that other stuff at the same time."
´Honored and valued'
Singleton wants to make sure that "all different backgrounds" is clearly understood.
"I'm not suggesting that all battered women are low-income," she says. "That is not even close to the truth. But at the YWCA Battered Women's Shelter we routinely see more low-income women because they have fewer resources than a woman who may have access to money, access to family. If domestic violence happened to me, I could take out a credit card and get on a plane and go wherever I wanted to go. But I don't have kids. A lot of women with kids and some of the barriers I described really face a tough time. That tough time doesn't even include grief over the loss of the relationship."
Dealing with all of that is a 365/24/7 operation, and the women say it includes a lot of challenges that people who have never "been to shelter" can't begin to imagine.
With 35 full- and part-time staff and about 51 volunteers, the shelter has become what the YWCA envisioned when it opened the doors in 1978: a professionally run organization that takes a holistic approach to helping the victims of violence in all forms.
Now in its second building, the goal of the place is still the same -- protecting and respecting each person. It guides everything at the shelter, including the carpeting.
"We're going to be doing an extensive renovation soon," Singleton says. "When we opened this facility in 1998, we made a commitment that we would make every effort to maintain it. So every three years we change out the furniture. Imagine having 15 people (in your house) every night -- so lots of wear and tear from mini-blinds to flooring to furniture. We really want women and children to feel honored and valued."
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