Tempers Flare Amid Crowded Dining and Malnutrition

An Observation of Community Women’ Shelter (from the inside)

Pt. 2 of a series, “A Fly on the Wall”

Commentary by Diana Dennis                

In last month’s issue (“Women’s Shelter Resident Observes Daily Life”, The Homeless Grapevine #72; Page 4-August-September 2005). I presented my first installment of a series of reports about my observations while a resident of Community Women’s Shelter.

Part 2 of this series covers the crowded conditions at the shelter, the quality of the meals served and the effects on the residents. I have changed the names of one of the residents involved to protect her identity.

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 addition all together.”

The exposure from frequent arguing and crowding of both the Community Room and sleeping rooms at  Community Women’s Shelter can be a traumatic experience especially for someone escaping abuse, suffering from depression or anxiety.

Cathy is bi-polar. Arriving at the shelter with a small suitcase and one change of clothing, she escaped an abusive domestic situation only to come into something she felt was far worse.

Obviously suffering from anxiety, with noticeable tremors and on the brink of tears she told me she wasn’t sure how much more she could take. Having only been at the shelter for a few days, she was in dire need of her medication to control her manic-depression and seizures. Having no money, Cathy was very fearful of leaving the premises, which was both physically and emotionally challenging for her. Several times she could not find her way back to the shelter due to memory problems and panic attacks.

Although she found many residents to be very kind by offerings her clothing and other items, Cathy did not feel the same compassion from some of the shelter staff. Feeling that some members of the staff were not taking her seriously she also felt misunderstood, making her more depressed and anxious.

At one point she was given a written warning for disorderly conduct while trying to convey to staff what she needed. The staff members on duty felt she was arguing with them when in fact, she was having great difficulty expressing her needs. She was always shaking and the crowded conditions in both the Community Room and her sleeping room increased her anxiety and panic.

Not only was she fearful of being turned out on the street for disorderly conduct because of her untreated manic episodes, confusion, and seizures from lack of medication, she also feared losing her bed and having her few possessions discarded should she need hospitalization. Because of this, Cathy did not report her seizures to staff.

After several weeks at CWS, one staff member finally recognized Cathy’s bi-polar condition and saw to it that she did receive her meds. However thankful she is for the staff person’s help, Cathy expressed concern over the length of time it took for someone to recognize, address her condition and handle it appropriately. Presently, Cathy is happily residing at Laura Home on the west side where she shares a room with two other residents in a home-like environment.

Tensions escalate more often during meal hours at CWS than at any other time of the day. Despite the shelter’s sleeping room capacity of approximately 135 beds, seating at the table can accommodate close to 50 residents. However, no more than 45 can be seated comfortably at the 9 tables presently set up in the Community Room. The remainder of those residents who do not have a place at a table have no choice but to sit and eat while balancing their plate and drink on their laps.

The cramped conditions during mealtime can be unnerving to many especially as people try to maneuver through the narrow aisle-ways between those seated at the tables. Often food or drink is spilled or someone is bumped.

The configuration of the tables have been changed several times but to no avail.          

The room is simply too small to accommodate so many residents at mealtime considering there are more than 100 residents at the shelter.

The population of the shelter is mixed at mealtime. Residents with mental disorders, women with substance abuse issues and women with children are among those who share the same dining area.  Whenever there is an altercation, children are often present to witness.

Several residents reported one such incident during supper involving a mother, her toddler and a resident with a mental condition. The Woman with the mental condition tried to pick up the child. The mother, trying to protect her baby told the other woman to leave her child alone. An argument ensued and both women were arrested, handcuffed and put in the same squad car. Fortunately, the mother was able to contact her parents to come to the shelter to pick up the child. Residents were upset that the mother was arrested and all felt that she rightfully protected her baby and should not have been arrested.

The actual meals served at Community Women’s Shelter are another subject of complaint by the residents. Any hearty meals for dinner are the result of church members preparing meals in church kitchens and delivering them to the shelter. If the church members stay and dish out the meals in the shelter kitchen or from a church bus outside, the chance of the meal being served hot is likely. Thanks to these caring individuals who painstakingly provide a hot meal to shelter residents, we enjoy a good home-cooked supper ranging from baked or fried chicken with mashed potatoes and green beans to spaghetti with meat sauce, salad and crusty bread.

Without the generosity of these churches, the residents would continue to have cold meals 5 out of 7 days a week. Most of the time meals at the shelter are served cold at room temperature. Some of the women heat up their food in the only microwave on the premises. But this is very time-consuming considering there may be as many as 50 women in the dining room during mealtime. Often, a cooked entrée is served on the some Styrofoam plate as potato salad, macaroni salad or lettuce making it impossible to heat the main course. Rarely is dessert or fruit served.

Occasionally, during the week various church groups will park along Payne Avenue or 22nd Street and provide packaged cookies, pudding, a banana, candy, sandwiches or a can soda. These treats may be the only sweets and the only source of fresh fruit many the women may receive throughout the week. Neither cold or hot beverage machines nor snack machines are on the premises. Sunday through Friday, breakfast consists of cold sugary cereal, cold bagels, instant grits or oatmeal. Coffee is the only beverage selection and often the shelter runs out of gallon jugs of milk before all residents eat. Often there is no butter or cream cheese for the bagels because these run out early or none have come in with the order. No institutional toaster is available to toast the bagels. Saturday, a church delivers individual packaged breakfasts of 2 spoonfuls of scrambled eggs, a hash brown potato patty, a sausage patty, toast and juice. By the time the shelter residents receive the packaged breakfasts, the meals are cold.

Many of the women have suffered vomiting, diarrhea and other intestinal distress as the result of an unbalanced diet. Most often symptoms appear within hour after eating spoiled tasting food. Children are served the same meals as the adults. There are no allowances for those requiring special diets due to diabetes, heart disease or other health conditions despite the claim in the shelter handbook that “special dietary needs (allergies, diabetes) must be discussed with the CWS nurse and specialist” which gives the perception that the shelter will abide by those needs. This is not the case.

Food stamps are a necessity, especially for women with special dietary needs. Surprisingly, obtaining food stamps (Ohio Direction Card) is not easy for the homeless and those living in shelters. In order to obtain an Ohio Direction Card, one must perform 25 hours of community service, have employment or be medication-dependent to the point that their life depends on the medication. I have observed some residents who are not medication-dependent but who are incapable of self-care due to less visible disabilities including central nervous system disorders that may prevent them from any physical work. They cannot meet the criteria to qualify for food stamps and many are awaiting a determination from the Social Security Administration for SSI or SSD. In the mean -time, they are reliant upon the unsubstantial meals provided by the shelter.

Copyright: NEOCH Homeless Grapevine; Cleveland, Ohio; October/November, 2005; Issue 73