An Interview with Zerri Darnell, weekend manager of East Side Catholic Shelter
Members of The Homeless Grapevine interviewed Ms. Darnell about her work at a Cleveland women’s shelter.
Q: What are some of the most common causes of homelessness with women?
My experience is fire or the unexpected things, and then things like sudden illnesses that take up all the money that you possibly have saved. Other things are the alcohol and drugs. That’s what took me and that’s what takes a lot of people, because all the money goes to that.
Q: Do you find comfort in helping people with this job or are you discouraged by the number of people that have to be turned away?
I do find comfort in the ones that do get helped, but I do feel real sad. I don’t like to be the one that takes the calls to tell people that we have no space. It is very hard to do. That’s the hardest part—telling someone that we don’t have space.
Q: Is it difficult for the children?
The kids meet so many people here. And kids fight, because that is what kids do. There are a lot of rules for the kids. Like at their own home, they could probably just open the refrigerator and get things out, but that is one of the rules here. Some things are harder, but other things are better because the mothers have the time now to just be with their children and learn and do things together. I think that is really good. It gives them the time they need and the experience they need. We have a child social worker who helps the mothers be better parents.
Q: How does this impact the children and the rest of their lives?
I think that the children may even be more appreciative after being homeless as they are growing up, if they do remember being without and then being with and what it really means. They won’t take for granted the things that they have. When they come here they realize [that]. I think it is very important for them when they get their new homes. I think they appreciate it a great deal more, and they carry that with them. My kids didn’t live here with me, but they visited on the weekend, and they stayed with their grandma. But they sure love their grandma’s house now.
Q: Do you think that welfare should be eliminated to promote self-reliance?
No, I don’t think they should eliminate welfare. Some mothers with small children, that’s the only think they have to live on. Day care is so expensive; you can’t afford day care to work. And that’s all they have. There’re a lot of people that don’t have medical help. I don’t think they should abolish it. I think that there are ways around it. Like they were saying about when the children are school age the mothers have to go to school or go to work. That’s good; that’s real good. It gives mothers something to do, so that they are not just sitting around on welfare. There are other ways besides just tearing it down completely. Some people really do need that.
Q: How big an obstacle is child care to a homeless woman?
I think child care is a major issue, the reason women don’t go get jobs. Child care costs almost as much as the job is paying you. These women are probably like me. I started out at $5.00 an hour. Day care cost me almost my entire check. That’s why my children couldn’t live with me. I couldn’t do it. Day care is just so high.
Q: What changes would you recommend to get homeless women into houses?
First, housing needs to be available. There is not enough low-income housing. Or in the cases there is housing, they cannot live there very long. More day care. Day care that is affordable. Day care that is maybe on a sliding fee scale. Child care needs to be affordable to go to work.
Q: Are there things that people could do to change the condition of the homeless?
There are so many things out there already, but people need to be aware of it. I know a lot of people that don’t want to rent to homeless people or Section 8 or low income or welfare recipients. People need to be a little more open and a little more helping. I know there are apartment buildings that have plenty of space, but they won’t rent to certain people.
Q: What did this shelter do for you in comparison with others?
All the shelters are good. This shelter allowed me to get treatment. They helped me to get to detox. They allowed me to stay until they had a bed ready. They set aside that 14-day thing. Almost all the shelters are 14-day shelters. That is not enough time to do anything. If you are on alcohol or drugs you are still detoxing. Your mind’s not even clear enough to try to do anything. For homeless women or battered women two weeks is not enough time to find anything. Now with places when you try to rent you have to fill out applications; they screen you: there is this and that. Two weeks is just not enough time. They just move to another shelter. Uprooting again and moving somewhere else.
Q: What led to your homelessness?
My mother had a home that I did stay in. She got tired of me using and stealing and then she eventually put me out. I slept in bus stops, behind buildings, office doorways. I think when I got clean . . . I knew I could go to work, and I knew with a little help I could get along. There was no way I would have had the money straight out of treatment without transitional housing. They need more funding for transitional housing. You can stay there for two years. I stayed there for one. It is a very small room.
Q: What would you tell a politician who asked how they could turn around the problem of housing in America?
I think they could take some of these buildings and turn them into something. Transitional housing used to be old church houses that they turned into tiny apartments. There are plenty of spaces like that; with some small renovations they could be made into something livable for people who are homeless.
Q: How do you like your job here at the shelter?
Working here is good for me because I can never forget. I just love to help people. I mean the look on children’s faces light up when they get plenty of food to eat that day. I love that feeling.
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #8, December 1994-February 1995