As someone who has volunteered at shelters before for maybe an hour or two a month, I know that for those who work there, it isn’t exactly the kind of job you can slack off from if you got a bad night sleep or if you have a headache – even around the holidays.
Gina Ranfone and Kimberly Brown, coordinators at Doorways, a non-profit that provides separate shelters for homeless families (Kimberly) and domestic violence victims (Gina), explain what they do, who is a typical client, why most people have the wrong idea about homeless families and domestic violence victims, and how some shelters make an effort not to be doom and gloom around the holidays.
What is your job at Doorways and describe a regular day?
Gina: I am the Daytime Home Coordinator at the Safehouse. A regular day for me includes answering the hotline, writing cab vouchers for clients on occasions where Doorways pays for transportation for example, when a client enters/exits the program, if a client does not feel safe taking the bus (because their abusive partner takes the same bus), to transport kids to school, etc., interacting with clients when they need or want to talk about something (could range from how to begin looking for jobs to discussing their experiences in DV relationships), and making sure the house is fully stocked on essentials such as toilet paper and paper towels.
Kimberly: As the Weekend Overnight Home Coordinator; this shift tends to be less active than the daytime shifts, but my role is the same. I come onto my shift, check emails and communications from previous shifts and colleagues. I will greet any residents that are still up and perform my facility walk through. I am checking messages, following up on tasks that weren't completed earlier in the day. The late hours do not prevent me from working with clients, who may only have the late evening to work on job searches or other goal related activities. It is also an excellent opportunity for clients to talk with me and share the events of their day.
What is the typical profile of a client who comes to your shelter? Can you give some statistics?
Gina: I’m not sure of the specific statistics, but many of our clients are minorities, particularly African American and Hispanic. We also see a lot of immigrants who come through the shelter, who are from Central America and East Africa. The ages of clients are pretty diverse, some being very young (late teens to early 20s), some being middle aged, and some being much older. Many of our clients have children they either bring to the shelter with them, or they find a relative/trusted friend the children can stay with until mom finds a safe place for everyone to live.
Kimberly: The typical client is a single parent, usually mother with young children. Over the last few years, the trend has been that our clients are getting younger.
Do you think the general public has the correct impression of who comes to your shelter?
Gina: I think the general public tends to forget that domestic violence does not discriminate! Society likes to think that something as tragic as domestic violence “doesn’t happen in my neighborhood,” but the fact is, DV can affect everyone.
Kimberly: I believe that most people do not understand the multi-faceted reasons a family may find themselves in shelter. Most of our clients are currently working or were working within the last year. These adults love their child or children and are doing the best they can. When a family just cannot make ends meet, they can easily find themselves one lost situation, which tips the scales. Rent, transportation and childcare are some of the biggest contributors to homelessness.
Why did you get into this line of work? Have you ever gotten to a point where you thought you couldn't do it anymore?
Gina: I began working for Doorways because as a recent graduate with a degree in Psychology and Criminal Justice, I wanted hands-on experience with a vulnerable population. I have always been interested in why offenders offend, but getting to see the other side of how survivors are affected has been a very eye-opening experience. From January-September 2014 I worked the evening shift, which is arguably the busiest shift because typically all the clients are at home and everyone generally needs something from me whether it is an item from storage or to vent about something, and I am the only staff present.
During this time I got to meet a very diverse group of women and children, many of whom, had horrific stories. Being not only my first job right out of college, but also the first shelter I had ever worked in, I often ended up not being able to turn my brain off when I would get home from work at night, and I would find myself lying awake for hours thinking about our clients. Even when I did fall asleep I was frequently having dreams that involved a client or was similar to a client’s story. Before I learned to compartmentalize and decompress after work, I did wonder if I wasn’t “cut out” for this type of work. But seeing a family successfully move into their own house always makes it worth it in the end. I have to see them at their lowest lows, but I also get to see them at their highest highs, and without a doubt the highs are worth it.
Kimberly: I have worked with clients and families in crisis my entire professional career. I have worked in Housing for the past 16 years. I have worked with Housing Authorities assisting families that are receiving rental subsidies either through Public Housing or the Housing Choice Voucher program. I decided that I wanted to share my knowledge and skills with people who are striving to break cycles of homelessness or are working toward goals to reestablish stable housing for themselves and their families.
Is there a particular case or situation that will always stay with you? Can you describe what happened?
Gina: The first intake I ever did was a family of two, a mother and her four year old daughter. I was only working for Doorways as a part-time employee, but I completed their intake and soon after was hired full-time. Since mom was not allowed to work and the daughter was not going to school, they were usually at home throughout my entire shift, so I would play with the daughter a lot and talk to mom. They ended up staying in shelter for four months, and during those months I really bonded with the daughter and got along really well with mom. Mom was always doing everything she could to minimize their stay in the shelter - when staff would tell her about an Employment Center workshop she would go, she never forgot about any meetings she set up with Doorways’ Financial Counselor, she got her daughter into school - and I really admired her for working so hard despite the tough situation she was in.
Kimberly: There is no one particular family or situation that rises to that level for me. All of the families that I've met over the years have impacted me in some way and my hope is that I am someone they remember as well. I believe that every family that has come through the Family Home has taught me something about myself. Every family has shown a unique brand of strength that many do not realize they possess. Nothing is more significant to me than seeing a parent reclaim their power and move toward self-sufficiency.
What is it like for children at the shelter? How do they feel about being there? Are they able to go to school regularly?
Gina: Children must go to school regularly if they are of age; if they are too young we can help mom find affordable childcare so that she can obtain a regular job. Children are very resilient; sometimes they seem to be totally unaffected by what was going on in their homes. Other times they identify with the abuser, and display abusive behaviors towards mom, a sibling, other children in the shelter, or even staff. How a child feels about being in the shelter really depends on the child’s disposition. We have a Children’s Counselor who comes to the shelter during the week and meets with the families together, the children individually, and moms individually in order to assess the child’s behavior and make a plan to decide the best course of action for each child.
Kimberly: Every child is different, but what I have noticed is that our children acclimate very well and fairly quickly to communal living. Some children have expressed that they are confused at first, but then they come to like it at the house. All of our children attend school regularly.
What is a typical Christmas/holiday season at the shelter?
Gina: I was not here for Christmas last year, but this year the staff are very excited for what we have planned for our clients! The donations that the Safehouse gets come to the shelter and get set up in stations in our staff office; one station may be labeled for Toiletries, another station may just say Take Two!, etc. Clients are invited to move through the stations and pick out things for themselves and their children.
Kimberly: At the Family Home, the house is very festive. There is a Christmas tree and items reflective of other cultural traditions. There are gift and food donations and families are encouraged to cook and share their own cultural and food traditions with others. The spirit in the home is filled with the excitement and hope that this time of year engenders. It is hard to be downtrodden when the house is filled with children who are excited about the holiday. I have found that most families whom are with us at the holidays have expressed that they enjoyed their holiday.
By Suzette McLoone Lohmeyer