Reflections on Working at a Domestic Violence Shelter
This is my two year anniversary of working at a domestic violence shelter. It is also the tail end of Domestic Violence Awareness month (October). As such, I thought I would write about some observations that I have made about domestic violence since I began working at a shelter.
Race: Perhaps one of the most striking features of the shelter is the racial composition of the clients that we serve. While I do not have official statistics from the shelter, as a general observation, at any given time, 60-80% of our shelter residents are women of color. This rate is based upon my own calculation of a sample of data, so it should not be taken as official data. Around 2.5% of Duluth residents are Native American and 2.3% of our residents are African American. Consider that for a moment. These groups make up under 5% of our general population (not including other minorities and mixed race individuals). At the same time, they make up over 60% of the women in shelter (and often over 75% of the shelter). To me, this highlights the extreme vulnerability of women of color in our community. Nationally, rates of physical violence, rape, or stalking from an intimate partner are 30-50% higher among women who are African American, Native American, and multiracial than white and Hispanic women. So, it comes as little surprise that the shelter would have a higher percent of women of color than white women, as this is consistent with the national statistics. However, not all women who are victims of domestic violence go to shelters. In my observation, women who come to the shelter tend to have fewer social networkers, greater poverty, and more community stresses around them. Whereas a white, middle class woman might have family and friends to stay with, or perhaps some money to stay at a hotel, this is not the case for low-income minority women whose networks are so entrenched in poverty, homelessness, historical trauma, substance abuse, and violence that there really is nowhere else to go. I believe this accounts for our high number of minority women in shelter.
Intimate partner violence can happen to people of any gender. Certainly, male teens and children are victimized by domestic violence and find themselves at the shelter with their mothers. Yet, most victims are women. Nationally, 85% of intimate partner violence victims are women. So, it is a women’s issue. Nevertheless, perhaps every other month, there is a call from a male victim. This is challenging because there are no male specific domestic violence shelters in our state. Really, there are only a handful of non-gendered domestic violence shelters in the country. I have taken a few calls from gay men in abusive relationships, but also a few heterosexual men. I absolutely believe there should be resources for everyone. I am also supportive of our hiring of a male advocate. Men can be victims, but also should be part of the solution. When men call, we do our best to connect them to homeless shelters, our resource center, or do a safety plan. I fully acknowledge and want to help male victims. HOWEVER, domestic violence is by and large a gender based problem faced by primarily by women. I think this is important to point out, since when something impacts one group disproportionately to another, it represents an important piece of information about the functioning of society. Everyone can be a victim, but why are women more often victims? This is a long question with many answers. Women have been viewed as property, without rights, and inferior to men. For much of history, the physical discipline of women was acceptable and legal. Women continue to be politically, economically, and socially subordinate to men. Therefore, it is hardly incidental that women are more likely to be victims of intimate partner violence.
Sexuality: Thus far this year, I have done about 32 intakes. An intake is a packet of paperwork that we complete with victims when they arrive at the shelter. In these intakes, we collect a lot of information, including demographic data. During the intake, we ask women which sexuality they identify as. Over half the time, women reply “female” or do not know what I mean. This is interesting, since it demonstrates a confusion in society about the difference between gender and sexuality. It also shows that many people do not know how to label their sexuality.
That aside, working at the shelter has given me the opportunity to observe black female sexual identity. I probably would not have this opportunity in my segregated white world. In my limited observation, I have observed some fluidity in black sexuality. I don’t want to “other” this group, but simply point out that they may not fit within the labels and stereotypes of white sexuality. For instance, the majority of lesbian identifying black women in the shelter have a children from one or more male partners. They also often have black male abusers. Despite their sexual history with black men, they identify as lesbian, at least in the intake. Also, within this population, there have been fewer individuals who would be stereotyped as “butch.” I find this interesting, since to me, it means that they construct gender and sexuality differently. In my own observation of white homosexuals or bisexuals, a narrative of continuity is important for establishing legitimacy. For instance, someone who switches sexual identities or did not “discover” their homosexuality or bisexuality until later in life, might be viewed with more skepticism. I have not sensed this same anxiety over continuity and labels among the residents at the shelter. Of course, this is a small sample size and I did not specifically ask the residents about these issues.
Finally, the majority of women who use the shelter identify as straight or heterosexual (when presented the list of sexualities to choose from). The majority of residents have abusers who are their opposite gender. Nevertheless, it is important to note that 44% of lesbians and 61% of bisexual women have experienced physical violence, rape, or stalking from an intimate partner, compared to 35% of heterosexual women. The 61% of bisexual women is particularly startling, as this would indicate that bisexual women particularly vulnerable. In my own experiences, I have only done one or two intakes this year wherein a woman identified as bisexual. However, I think that sexuality is rather personal. I am a complete stranger when I meet the women. As such, they might not want to divulge their sexuality.
Ability and Health:
One of the biggest challenges of working in the shelter is that the women who come here usually have one or more health issues. Statistically, women with disabilities are 40% more likely to be the victims of domestic violence. The challenge is not that they have a disability or major health issue, but that when we are full, we are serving over 39 residents. In the summer of 2015, there were some nights when we had as many as 58 residents. Most shifts have three staff. The night shift used to have one staff, but has gone to two. Thus, staff are spread thinly and can not always meet the needs of the residents. Aside from arriving with injuries from the abuse, women arrive with substance abuse problems, mental health issues, and physical health issues. This means that the residents need a lot of support and resources. It is hard to even describe the level of need and the lack of ability to always meet it. This is probably the number one stressor at the job. On my own shift, I probably call 911 at least once a month or once every other month due to medical emergencies. These emergencies have ranged from going into labor, allergic reactions, difficulty breathing, heart problems, and head trauma. More frequently, residents need to be brought to the ER for non-emergencies such as colds, flu, toothaches, vomiting, infections, UTI, gallbladder issues, etc. On the mental health spectrum, women often have anxiety attacks, nightmares, manic episodes, depression, or just need someone to talk to. On the extreme mental health spectrum, there have been delusions and hallucinations. Of course, there is a difference between disability and health issues, but speaking broadly, each day that I work here, there is one or more medical issues to attend to.
Because the population has been exposed to trauma, is stressed out, is low income, and minority, they have a full plate of health challenges. And, if a person arrives in relatively good health, the environment itself lends itself to disease and stress. The shelter is communal living. Imagine living in a room full of strangers who have all gone through (sometimes a lifetime of) traumatic events. There is stress and conflict. There are babies crying in the middle of night. There are women getting up early for work or going to bed late. There are people who snore and fart through the night. Communal living isn’t fun. Stress and lack of sleep compromise the immune system. And, communal living is messy! Any space containing 39 to 50 people is a breeding ground for germs, especially when half of them are children. Norovirus rampaged through the shelter four times last year. In fact, I don’t think that it ever left the shelter. Colds, flus, stomach bugs, and infections find fertile ground to multiple, moving room to room all year long. It is a germaphobes nightmare. I have a real fear of norovirus. Like some junior, unofficial CDC fan-club member, I actually wrote down each time norovirus afflicted the shelter last year. I found that it hit the shelter at about three month intervals, starting in September 2015, with the most recent outbreak in July 2016. This is consistent with studies that immunity to norovirus lasts a few months. Most of the staff had numerous bouts of vomiting last year. Each night, I clean for a few hours. I try to wipe down the surfaces with bleach. It is a losing battle.
Another interesting characteristic of the shelter is that the victims who come here tend to be young. While we serve women of all ages, most of our residents tend to be under the age of 25. These young residents also tend to have a number of small children. Many of the women first became parents when they were in their teens and some are teen parents when they arrive. Usually, this makes me feel old! I am old! And I am unusual, since I am a woman in my mid-30s without children. Women who are a decade or more younger than me must shoulder the responsibility of having two or more children! This is a daunting task, since rents are high, jobs are low paying, transportation is cumbersome, and day care almost impossible to find. I feel that we are worlds apart. I have such freedom. I am enormously privileged. Motherhood looks like carting crying, coughing, snotty nosed children to the freezing bus stop to get to a housing appointment or find clothes for a job interview. In their frustration, it is easy to see all of the disgusting ways that society fails mothers.
Aside from young mothers, we usually have one or more women in shelter who are pregnant. Based upon reports from the intake, these pregnant women were often subjected to greater abuses when they became pregnant than prior to it. I actually had a woman go into labor on my shift (after earlier in the day she fled her abuser, who attacked her). It was pretty intense. She was screaming at me to help her. Her water broke outside our office. She actually gave birth on the stretcher as she was pushed into the hospital. I like to regale my coworkers with the story of how I almost delivered a baby. For vast majority of the women, the pregnancies were unplanned. Some had hopes of a good relationship with their abuser. Others were sexually coerced. The presence of young mothers is consistent with national statistics. The group with the highest incidence of domestic violence is 18-24. This is also the age group with the highest rates of abortion. Since 4 out of 10 unplanned pregnancies end in abortion, it makes sense that the group that is most vulnerable to relationships that deny them sexual autonomy also has the highest rate of abortion.
The Complicated Victim:
When I tell people that I work at a domestic violence shelter, usually they become quiet or tell me how nice it is that I do that work. I read recently that 79% of Americans have never actually had anyone talk to them about domestic violence. When Americans think about victims, we often think of mousey white women who live under the shadow of their abuser. They are shrinking violets who endure abuse in silence. This stereotype of a victim is useful, since because of the racism in society, it seems very hard for white people to sympathize with Native American and African American women. It is hard for ordinary white people to sympathize with victims who have criminal backgrounds, who abuse children, who are themselves violent, or who are addicted to drugs. In the popular mindset, a victim must be virtuous, long suffering, and “good.” Victims who are not these things are blamed for the violence against them.
The truth of the matter is that the victims I work with are not the virtuous, saintly, white women who crumble like crushed lilies under the fist of their massive, angry, alcoholic abuser. Many of the women struggle with severe substance abuse. Many of the women do not treat their children kindly. They can be neglectful or even outright abusive. Many of them have criminal backgrounds. Some visit the shelter between visits to jail. Many of the women can be aggressive, insulting, rude, and selfish in their interactions with staff and other residents. I am not listing these characteristics to put down the women. Rather, I am being honest and want to create a portrait of the complicated people that stay at the shelter.
The complicated victim is a challenge, since as an advocate, we must challenge ourselves to show compassion and empathy to people who can be mean, rude, or disappointing. A victim is a victim, even if they fight back or even if they were using drugs. A victim deserves kindness, support, and unbiased service no matter what they have done or how they treat others. The ideal of the saintly victim makes compassion easy. The saintly victim is grateful and positive. The complicated victim might swear and make a scene. But, it challenges a person. It challenges a person to be less biased. It challenges a person to see substance abuse, homelessness, self-defense, and survival differently. In the challenging victims, I see a lot of my own privilege. I have the emotional resources to be calm and collected in the face of conflict. I have the emotional resources to be patient when I don’t get my way, because I have faith in the long-game of life. I have a lot of material, emotional, and psychological resources that help me cope with the challenges of life. My behaviors are the outcome of my conditions and experiences. So are theirs.
It is hard to see black and blue, but it is also hard for society to see victims who are not white, thin, and able bodied.
Myth of Welfare Queens: As I have mentioned before, upon arrival at the shelter, I complete paperwork with the victims. During this paperwork, I collect income information. This is one of the most startling observations about victims: the majority are not getting any kind of public benefit, child support, or income.
Many people believe that low income mothers with many children are gaming the system by collecting child support from multiple fathers or getting large checks from the government. This simply is not true of the women who come to the shelter. While many of them apply for benefits once they are here, most do not arrive with health insurance or even MFIP. Many of the women have severe health problems and disabilities, but are not collecting disability benefits. I would say that there has not been a single intake that I have completed wherein the victim was receiving all of the benefits they would qualify for. And, if the women do qualify for benefits, it extremely rare that it is over $1000 a month. Most receive a few hundred dollars.
There are several reasons why the women do not have the benefits they could qualify for. One: Some were financially dependent upon their abuser as a form of abuse called financial abuse. Two: Many of the women have been chronically homeless, have moved across states, cities, or counties. Applying for benefits requires residency in an area or living there long enough to collect the benefits. This is not the case for women who have been moving a lot. Three: Applying for benefits can be difficult, especially because many of the women did not complete high school or may not be the best readers. They may not know where to apply, the programs available, or the process of application. Four: Because of mistakes in filling out paperwork, they may have been denied a benefit. In short, in my two years at the shelter, I have not met a single woman who was somehow cheating the system to gain benefits or child support. It is more common that women have so little income that they cannot afford $1 co-pays on their medications.
Still Going On?
When I was younger, I imagined that domestic violence was one of those things of the past. If I heard about it, it seemed rare and shocking. Doesn’t everyone think that women shouldn’t be beaten?! Yet, over 4.7 million women experience domestic violence each year. A few weeks ago, I protested the 15th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. Between 2001-2012, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq took the lives of 6,488 U.S. soldiers. During that same time period, 11,766 women were murdered by their male intimate partner or ex-partner. That is astonishing and terrible!
Yes, it is still a problem. Each night, I update our available beds on a website that lists all of the shelters in Minnesota. Each night, across the state, all of the beds are full. Women come from across the state to our shelter because they cannot find space elsewhere. We are regularly full. There could be another shelter in Duluth and that would be also full. The problem never goes away. The shelters are always full. Sometimes we have people sleeping on mattresses on the floor rather than turn them away.
Once a woman comes to shelter, she is safe, but moving forward is difficult. Housing is expensive. Low-income housing is competitive and in low supply. Jobs pay poorly. Our public transportation system is extremely inconvenient. Our community, especially our schools, are hostile to minority women and children. With consistent effort and enough time, some women succeed and move on to housing. Even if a victim breaks the cycle of abuse, they are left to fend for themselves in a racist, classist, sexist, ableist society.