My organization focused on supporting the rights and self-determination of our clients as we kept the peace and built trusting relationships. Unfortunately, the agencies charged with serving people who are vulnerable and in need of great service are often led by people blind to their classism and ignorance of the lives of their clients.
We were a small, somewhat radical stepchild of a national organization. We took a harm-reduction philosophy toward addiction and homelessness, were the only women’s shelter in our city in 2002 that accepted gender self-identification, and didn’t require sobriety.
Our parent organization was planning a new building for our agency (and their offices) – a beautiful place with a large ground floor designed specifically to meet the needs of the women we served, and three floors of apartments and transitional housing. In an effort to include the voices of our clients, architects in suits asked our clients, as respectfully and sensitively as they could, about how they used our shelter space and what they’d like in a new one.
It’s important to note, that while a large proportion of homeless people are working poor in intact families, the specific population of women that I served were our most vulnerable people. Most suffered from mental illness, drug addiction or both. Their parental rights were often terminated.
Racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, and transphobia conspired with our ruthless economic system to demand there be “losers” so that others can be “winners”. The stories women told in our building, just down the street from the financial district, Nordstrom’s, and Macy’s were of violence, trauma, criminal justice system involvement, troubled immigration, multi-generational homelessness and prostitution, and alienation. These women deserved housing, but no one in town had found a way to provide housing that worked for them.
The model that my director and I wanted to emulate was working for chronically homeless women in New York City, and offered multiple levels of support and staffing for women’s different, shifting levels of need for support in transition to permanent housing. Our national organization already had transitional and permanent housing sites for women who met intrusive, impersonal and ineffective criteria demanding sobriety for all, regular appointments, and medication for mental illness, among other things. The administrators explained that the floors above our shelter would be nothing different. The women we served would continue to spend their years sleeping on mats on shelter floors supposedly intended to fill an emergent, temporary need.
When we asked how the many apartments above our day center/night shelter space would be filled, the higher-ups said, “That’s why we called this meeting. We wanted to know. When your clients get housing, where do they go? We would like to visit those places and advertise, let those women know that we’ve got some new spaces for them.” They were building housing for homeless women who were no longer homeless. They didn’t want to hear how to offer housing to women whose homelessness persisted.
We provided towels, blankets, and bathrobes for clients. The robes were usually for people doing laundry, but they also provided an extra layer on cold days, and a comfortable hominess, especially if you were coloring your hair in the bathroom, or were feeling too sick to get dressed. The bathrobes were a symbol of the public/private space we operated. If you have never been homeless, imagine doing all that you prefer to do at home, behind a door; plucking eyebrows, snuggling under a blanket reading a novel, talking to your mother, applying topical medicine, taking out your dentures, using a fluoride treatment, calisthenics, meditation recommended by your therapist or twelve steps program, all of it in a space shared with a hundred other people.
When we asked whether our worn robes were to be replaced in our new space, we were told that the organization was going to stop providing robes. “These women” were going to need to get jobs or at least make it to appointments in order to get into housing, and bathrobes just seemed to “lead to a lazy attitude”. It was more “professional” for women to be dressed in their clothes and it would lead to an atmosphere more conducive to “getting things done.” This came to represent for me the shift in our organization, what our center was giving up in a trade for a beautiful new space, and by the time we realized that we were trading our compassion and respect for the women we served for a new, cleaner space to serve them in, it was too late.
When we first toured the new facility, our old director noticed that there were no water fountains anywhere on the first floor. One of our administrators explained in an offhand way that people these days mostly bought water bottles, so the architects never put water fountains in any more. Later, I watched an older woman take medication by stooping over the touchless, temperature-controlled, fan-spraying faucet to scoop water to her mouth with her hands.
The new space would have more mats in a darkened sleeping room for naps during the day. The focus group had asked for cots instead of the old mats which would be warmer up off the floor and better for women who were ill or injured and couldn’t get down on the ground easily.
With the new space came shortened sleeping periods. For many clients, a two hour nap could really help them reduce their sleep deficit, which led to better health, and more emotional resources to deal with stress. When the staff reduced the nap times to one hour, it led to more conflicts as exhausted people were awakened before they were ready or people missing their slot because they had to choose between rest and meals, or human services appointments.
During the four-year process of building this facility, the all-female staff of our agency organized a union. The national organization with a mission of empowerment used every legal and illegal kind of fear-mongering and union-busting to break up our efforts. Their tone-deafness and unwillingness to meet staff demands mirrored their ignorance of clients’ needs. We succeeded and negotiated our first contract as we moved into the new shelter.
Outside the new counselors’ office was a sign that said “Unconditional Positive Regard” (what social workers are supposed to offer their clients). We joked that they had to write it on the wall because it was no longer being communicated in any other way. Our agency, which had made as much space as possible for leadership and love among our homeless clients, was now just another place that told women what they needed and what hoops to jump through to get it.
It’s easy to get carried away by capital campaigns and schematic drawings during times of institutional change. If you are in the helping professions, please learn about and from your client’s lives, and your own complicity in their oppression. If you are an administrator, seek out your direct service providers. Listen to them when they describe their needs and help in ways that are respectful and empowering.
And put in a damn water fountain.