Women’s Shelter Resident Observes Daily Life

An Observation of Community Women’s Shelter (from the inside) Pt.1of a new series, “A Fly on the Wall”

Commentary by Diana Dennis

      In this series of reports, I hope to make the reader understand the varying circumstances leading to homelessness for many Cleveland area women (some with children) and the indignities they frequently endure as residents of

Community Women’s Shelter.

      I must admit I was quite naïve to the plight of homeless women and what the atmosphere in a homeless shelter is like before circumstances forced me to stay there. My perception, based on information provided to me over the telephone by a volunteer at United Way First Call For Help, was that residents of homeless shelters (in general) had to leave the premises daily upon rising in the morning and arrive back at the shelter or phone in between the hours or 3 to 6 p.m. to check for bed availability.

      I wondered, “How could a homeless individual, especially one without money, possibly afford even one phone call to any shelter or social agency, let alone telephoning on a daily basis to check on bed availability?” Perhaps this explains one aspect of the panhandling dilemma in this city.

      My first 24 hours at the shelter were a culture shock for me. During that short time I witnessed three outbursts by residents of the shelter-one physical and two emotional. All three incidents were brought on by something as innocent as someone unintentionally bumping or brushing up against another resident while passing through the narrow aisles between the tables in the community room. I remember one resident screaming out, “Don’t touch me! Don’t you ever touch me!” while the woman who brushed up against her tried to calm her with a heartfelt apology.

      What I soon discovered was that all three of these women were victims of physical and emotional abuse. I also observed that the staff, including security, is ill prepared or ill equipped to deal with the myriad problems and psychological trauma that abused women suffer. The result of these outbursts most likely will be suspension or arrest with jail time rather than crisis intervention, counseling, or medication for those who need it. Only in a shelter setting is someone suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder resulting from physical, emotional, sexual and/or domestic abuse treated like a criminal.

      Unlike the men’s shelter on Lakeside, there is an off-duty police officer on guard 24 hours a day at the women’s shelter. Although comforting to some of the women who feel more secure in knowing that weapons or any metal object may be confiscated upon entry into the main building, other residents are unnerved by their presence. The sight of any resident being physically taken down to the floor and handcuffed can be quite disruptive and is often emotionally disturbing for the vulnerable, especially those who left an atmosphere of physical abuse.

      Because the shelter is run by Mental Health Services, one would believe that ALL the residents of the shelter were homeless mental patients without the resources for adequate psychiatric care and psychological counseling. One might assume that psychiatric nurses with mental health counseling expertise would be on staff 24/7. Such is not the case. The truth is that only one nurse is on staff during the day- Monday through Friday only. Any resident with seizure disorders, diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease will not receive immediate care as a result of the absence of medical staff in the evenings or during the weekends.

      Women who have suffered some sort of physical, sexual or emotional abuse may also have anxiety disorders with depression. They come to the shelter without clothing or any personal effects, much less identification, medications, or money. Some also have physical disabilities, which compound their dilemma. Some of the abused come with children in tow. All are trying to escape a volatile situation only to find themselves in, what many women (including those with a past incarceration) describe as an atmosphere “worse than prison.”

      Due to the size of the facility, Community Women’s Shelter lacks the space to divide the population of the shelter into smaller, easier to manage units with staff assigned to each unit to address issues accordingly. The sleeping quarters have been somewhat segregated for those receiving treatment for mental conditions or substance abuse and those who work-but not in all cases. However, space does not permit separation for those who remain at the shelter during the day in common areas on the property. With so many people crammed in such a small area, it is easy for tempers to flare and impossible to avoid someone else who may be more easily disturbed.

      Daily there is some form of personality conflict between residents. Unless they are physically capable of leaving the premises during the daytime, many are confined on the property-either having to sit outside on the three benches in the main driveway or crowded in the Community Room that also serves as dining room and sleeping area when beds are not available. Mats are provided to those in need when a bed is not available.

      Those being punished for missing the 9:30 p.m. curfew or having a disorderly conduct infraction will spend the night sleeping upright in a chair rather than being permitted to lie down on a mat. Disorderly conduct has included something as juvenile as refusing to turn down a portable radio because a roommate trying to sleep is being disturbed by ‘the offender’s’ music despite the use of headphones. Police intervention and removal of such an “offender” from the sleeping quarters disrupts the sleep of all residents in the sleeping quarters when initially only one resident was bothered.

      The three benches, located in the driveway facing 22nd street, not only leave the residents exposed to the searing sun during the daytime but also visibly expose the residents to passersby, thus offering no protection of anonymity. Statistics demonstrate that, in instances of domestic violence, once the victim escapes her home the batterer will first check local shelters in hopes of finding her. With residents sitting outside in clear view it would be easy for an abuser to quickly find his victim. Women with children are especially vulnerable.

      When its doors opened in February 2004, future goals for Community Women’s Shelter included developing a women’s health campus between the two buildings with an outdoor recreation area and community center in the lower level of building 2 (after Care Alliance moves out of the building). More than a year has passed and most of these goals presently remain on hold until Care Alliance vacates its current Payne Avenue residence. 

      I see no reason why the parking area between the main shelter building and the Care Alliance facility can’t be utilized as a private outdoor sitting area in the interim. Many of the residents would prefer to congregate in the shade between the two buildings to escape the sun’s burning rays while the Community Room/Dining Room is cleaned after supper. They wish that the benches were located between the two buildings.

      In her article “New Home, Fresh Start for Women’s Shelter” (The Homeless Grapevine #67 Nov.-Dec. 2004) Pamela Vincent wrote: “The top concerns of the women were that they had no choice but to spend the entire day in one room with all of the women no matter their mental illness, health problem or addiction all together.”

      In the continuance of this series, I will discuss the crowded conditions at the shelter and their effects on the women residing there.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue 72 August 2005 Cleveland, Ohio.