Give ear to my prayer, O God,
and hide not yourself from my plea for mercy!
Attend to me, and answer me;
I am restless in my complaint and I moan,
because of the noise of the enemy,
because of the oppression of the wicked.
For they drop trouble upon me,
and in anger they bear a grudge against me.
My heart is in anguish within me;
the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me.
And I say, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest;
yes, I would wander far away;
I would lodge in the wilderness; Selah
I would hurry to find a shelter
from the raging wind and tempest.”
Oh that I had in the desert
a travelers’ lodging place,
that I might leave my people
and go away from them!
For they are all adulterers,
a company of treacherous men.
They bend their tongue like a bow;
falsehood and not truth has grown strong in the land;
for they proceed from evil to evil,
and they do not know me, declares the LORD.
(Jeremiah 9:2-3 )
From what I’ve been gleaning about Women’s Shelters in the USA, they may be even more under-funded than the ones in Australia (in Australia they are called Women’s Refuges, which I think is also the UK term). In at least in some parts of the USA, shelters are using volunteers to keep the show going, with paid professionals to oversee the volunteers. If the volunteers aren’t well trained (and how much training can you afford to give to volunteers?) they can easily say things insensitively to victims. That’s been the experience of one of our readers, as related to me by email.
It was also my experience the first time I went to a shelter. I had been living in the shelter for several days. Each woman had a little bedroom and kitchenette, with shared bathroom and laundry facilities. Each little bedroom unit had an intercom with the office. The office staff, who were sometimes volunteers, would buzz you on the intercom to tell you stuff they wanted to tell you. I found that really impersonal, officious, and off-putting . . . as if we victims had leprosy so they wouldn’t come and talk to us face to face. Sometimes they talked face to face, but for small things they just buzzed you.
One day I got a buzz from the office and the woman at the other end said, “Your husband is here and would like to talk to you.” I was shocked. How had he found out I was staying there? Looking back, I assume he had rung round town till he found out the phone number of the place I was likely to be staying at. It was not a high-security refuge, the address and phone number were in the phone book as “Salvation Army Family Center”. It took lower-risk victims of DV and a few other homeless women and children from non-DV backgrounds, but the vast majority of residents were from DV situations. Someone in the office must have confirmed to him that I was there when he rang or knocked at the door and asked them! But I didn’t have time to cogitate on all that at the time; I was just dumbfounded and scared.
The refuge rule was that men were not allowed on the premises. He had knocked at the door and asked to see me, so this person ( I assume she was a volunteer) buzzed me and said “Your husband’s here, do you want to talk to him?” Being a newbie and very naive, and thinking ‘the staff know what’s best’ I thought she was saying “You SHOULD talk to him.” So I went out and met him on the pavement! He wasn’t allowed on the premises because it was deemed unsafe to have men in the refuge, but they were happy to send me out on the sidewalk to be subjected to his charming lies and guilt-tripping confusing words. I’m still really angry about it to this day!
Some years later, after I’d been writing and advocating for survivors of domestic abuse for some time, I screwed up my courage and spoke to one of the long-term staff from that refuge. I told her (meekly, not showing my anger) what had happened that day. She responded without much empathy and certainly very little apology. She just said rather dismissively, “It wouldn’t happen nowadays; we had volunteers on staff then, but these days we don’t use volunteers much.”
I felt deflated and hurt all over again by her lame, un-empathic response.
Each time I went to the shelter (three times) I had insensitive comments or actions from some of the staff there, including some of the paid professionals. They just lacked empathy and had little insight into how much the victim takes EVERYTHING personally because she’s a walking guilt-bag. They didn’t give nearly enough reassurance to dispel all that guilt. One of them lent me that book Women who love too much. What a guilt-tripping title!
But the refuge did some good things. They sent one of their workers out in a car to pick my baby and me up from the public phone box where I’d rung a personal emergency hotline after having fled my husband’s violence. It’s something of a blur, but I know they came and picked me up from the street when I was terrified to go home, and for that I am immensely grateful; and they gave me accommodation and food and even some child care at certain hours during the week while I was at the refuge. And one thing they did at the refuge did help me eventually get out of the abuse. Even though I had informed them I was going to go back to my husband (after he’d conned me on the sidewalk) they recommended I attend a ten week DV support group, and I did so, even although I was reconciled with my husband and living with him again! (How? — you ask. I told him I was going to a women’s self esteem group, and he looked after our toddler while I was at the group. 🙂 ) One of the sessions in that ten weeks was about Court Protection Orders, and a little part of my mind took in that info and filed it in some bottom drawer until a couple of years later when I left my husband and (much to the astonishment of my fore-brain) applied to the court for a Protection Order. So the refuge staff did help me; I don’t want to paint my refuge experience as all bad.
So that’s my little story. I would love to hear if any of our readers have stories, good or bad, about being in shelters/refuges. I trust that these days the domestic violence sector is run much more professionally and the staff are doing a much better job than when I went through the system in the early 1990s. From my current interactions with them as a writer and victim advocate, the professionals I know who work in this area seem to be much better than the ones I encountered when I went through the system as a victim-in-crisis. So this post is not meant as a gripe. Let’s just share our stories — and hopefully encourage other victim-survivors and help them navigate through the system in whatever way suits them best.