We need to talk about what’s happening behind shelter doors.
Let me start by giving a quick run-down of a day in the life of a domestic violence (DV) advocate:
In a DV shelter, there are three existing shifts – day, swing and grave.
This means someone needs to be at the shelter and available to answer the phone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, every single shift, even on holidays. Why? Because DV doesn’t sleep. Why else? Because the federal funding requires it, and everyone is terrified of losing funding.
With a staff of roughly 10 to 15 people and a couple of people on an on-call roster, finding coverage for every weekend, grave and holiday shift, year in and year out, is hardly an easy task. Meaning, staff are very tired.
When people call out sick, when people need and deserve time off, when people don’t want to work on a holiday, someone has to be there — day, swing and grave. So, your sad, tired, traumatized shelter manager will have to wake up in the middle of the night when the graveshift person oversleeps, or come in at 7 a.m. on New Year’s Day when everyone else is hungover (true stories).
If you are daytime or swing staff, you are probably carrying a caseload of clients. You grow to feel personally invested in their safety and worry about where the hell they are going to go once their stay at the shelter is over. You are tasked with finding them a place to go after their 30 to 45 day stay is up, and the clock is ticking.
Not sure why it is so difficult to get housing? Let’s talk about it.
First you need to know: Does the survivor have any income? Do they have documentation that allows them to work? If they do, is it safe for them to continue working somewhere they might be found? Hate to break it to you, but this is not very likely. Now, if they can stay, do they make three times the market-rate rent? Also wildly unlikely. What if they got the golden-ticket Section 8 voucher? Then you need to find a landlord willing to accept the voucher who isn’t going to have preconceived judgments about people with vouchers. Yes, even with the first-come-first-serve laws, landlords are still finding ways to surprise us.
Now, what’s their credit score? What if the harm-doer stole their identity? Do they have debt? Did they get evicted due to something their harm-doer did? What if the harm-doer took out credit cards in their name and they have to declare bankruptcy? What if the police were involved, and they tried to defend themselves against their harm-doer and ended up getting arrested? Now they have criminal history.
Now to make matters even more difficult: How are you communicating with all of these agencies and getting money moved around? Listen closely.
DV shelters use fax machines. No, I am not joking.
So, your remaining options for housing are the person having some blessed friend or family member who lives in a more affordable area and is willing to take them, and potentially their children, in for an extended stay. You can also beg and barter with your director for more time in the shelter (meaning they have to make a case as to why we couldn’t get them housed in 30 to 45 days and therefore are “serving fewer people”). Perhaps a magical transitional housing spot opened up, and they were chosen over the long list of other survivors in equally dire need. Lastly, there could be another shelter, better known as the ol’ “shelter swap,” where we trade people who are having a really difficult time finding housing. Which is, shocker, basically everyone.
Beyond this, your best option is some sort of miracle.
Even though the clock is ticking, you have to put a pin in the housing search, because you also need to manage the front desk and the 24-hour hotline.
Carol from 211 will call again and again between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., and again, you’re going to have to tell her you still don’t have space in the shelter. There’s an online system that shelters use to report when they have open spaces, (formerly “DayOne” and now “A New Day”), but you’re not really sure whether it just hasn’t been updated in the past decade, or whether people just really do not have any space. Both could be true.
Then the phones will start ringing, and people will be in and out of the office all day. On the phone line, people need a range of support — someone to talk to about what’s going on in their relationship; safety planning about how to leave a dangerous situation; help evaluating how dangerous their situation is; legal advice; financial support; relocation funds; help fleeing, like a taxi (RIP to the taxi voucher system) or bus/train/plane tickets out of town; motel vouchers (if those exist anymore?); court support; medical support; immigration support (you might need a translator); a hospital calling to see if the person in the ER can get help; a cop asking for help for a survivor; a variety of other needs as each survivor has unique barriers to safety; and, oh lastly — shelter space — which, just a reminder, you probably do not have.
If you’re anything like me, you got into this work for a personal reason. So you’re also navigating being constantly triggered by your own experiences of domestic violence and housing insecurity due to domestic violence and poverty. Or maybe you do not identify as a survivor of domestic violence, specifically, but perhaps you feel called to the work because you have experienced dynamics of power and control in your own relationships. Maybe you grew up in a home with DV, you have a family member or friend who has experienced DV or you just give a shit about DV and you’ve decided to take on a ton of vicarious trauma.
In a study done by FreeFrom, a Los Angeles-based agency that focuses on the financial liberation of survivors, approximately 50 percent of individuals working in the field identified as survivors. Personally, this feels like a gross underestimate. But, as mentioned previously, there are an array of reasons why individuals get into this work. Additionally, 25 percent of staff interviewed were still in contact with their harm-doers, and one in five did not feel safe in their homes.
According to FreeFrom, staff spent about eight hours a week, on average, stressing about finances. About 50 percent have been in poverty or experienced homelessness due to DV.
I cannot stress this enough — the people providing services to survivors in shelters are teetering on the brink of housing instability themselves, and it is highly likely that their lives have been affected by DV. And where do we even begin with social work salaries or the housing market in the Seattle area?
My point is this: Policymakers and nonprofit CEOs are failing the survivors on both sides of the desk. The DV field needs a serious facelift, because these fax machines are about to *Machine Error: 84 Error Code.*
Charlotte Jarvis is a Seattle-based writer, survivor, and therapist. You can find more of her work at charlottejarvis.com.
Read more of the Feb. 16-22, 2022 issue.