*This is my unedited memoir in progress. I welcome your feedback and comment as I develop my work in progress.
Thank you for taking time to read my story about working in women’s domestic violence and homeless shelters over the last 20 years and thank you for your patience with the unedited nature of the following story.
The ART of Change
A Domestic Violence Shelter Memoir
by Carol Omer
The Women’s Village
For many years I worked in homeless shelters and domestic violence refuges amongst complex women leading challenging lives. And that was just the staff.
That’s an old joke I used to bring out at staff meetings occasionally to remind us that although we were the shelter workers, we were not exempt from life’s dramas and difficulties. Our agency was a supported accommodation and advocacy service for homeless young women under 25, with children. It was referred to amongst the residents as a shelter for single mums.
Many were teenage mothers dealing with issues of poverty and family trauma. We didn’t always have the answers to every problem that presented itself amongst the homeless women who came to live at the shelter for a short time but we were dedicated to our philosophy of walking with the young women in the early days of their journey of young motherhood.
A women’s shelter is a complex, compassionate and challenging environment. There were times when staff members attributed issues amongst the women in residence as a reflection of the dynamics of that current group not realising that sometimes the discord and lack of co-operation were a mirror of our own .
As a staff team we were continuously working through complex issues of compatibility and conflict amongst our team of ten women sharing a relatively small space day in and day out. Spending a significant part of our week days in a compact setting required us all to take ownership of how our personal style impacted the collective and it was an on going conversation that sometimes carried high emotion when contradictory values clashed.
We had the privilege of addressing difficulties within the context of team development and staff training but for the women who came to live at the shelter their issues were not always identified as related to living with seven other women in a highly prescriptive shelter setting whilst under the watchful eye of a team of older women as contributing to her stress.
Workplaces are a microcosm of human interactions and work place politics, staff alliances and staff differences, personality types and personality clashes play out on a daily basis. I think of workplace teams as a kind of arranged marriage, some of the relationships have a high success rate where others require constant attention and maintenance in order to maintain harmony and an agreement about how power and responsibility are distributed.
Identity, self worth, acceptance, overcoming negative patterns and developing new ways of thinking to overcome old beliefs and narrow perceptions are the challenges we all face in life. The women who came to live at the shelter were living an amplified version of these challenges because of the impact of domestic violence, surviving sexual abuse and poverty. At any given time there would be 20 women living behind the secure gates of the shelter and equally as many children. It was an unpredictable, sometimes volatile and endlessly inspiring setting taught me a great deal about the resilience of women during times of distress and heartache.
Human services are no different than any other institution, that creates highly contained settings where the very best and the most challenging aspects of human nature are played out. Skilled, flexible women with compassionate hearts managed our shelter and they encouraged a culture of self-reflection and team development. Like all of us, they were on their journey of life and together we created new projects and programs, some that failed and many that were successful. Accountability for choices and behaviors was as relevant for the women who worked there as it was for the women who came to live there.
The teenagers and young women who came to the shelter were marginalised and troubled young people. Some struggled with mental health issues and all were affected by trauma and grief. They often arrived with babies in prams donated by the Salvo’s, accompanied by determined social workers who had worked hard to get them into the shelter and away from the people and places they were accustomed to.
Occasionally a woman was at the shelter because of a court order and the monitoring of her daily routines by staff, social workers and psychologists would determine whether or not she would keep her baby or if a care order would be put in place. There was a lot at stake and emotions were raw and unpredictable. Any mother, regardless of her age or circumstances would find the prospect of losing her baby to an all powerful government department an agonising, looming threat.
In some ways the power that the shelter had over a young woman’s future, determined by the observations and recommendations we would make, was the same power imbalance and impending threat that she experienced in the domestic violence she was fleeing. We had the power and the resources and she had to comply and commit to making changes or her relationship with her baby, who was considered to be at high risk by the time a court order was issued, would be changed for ever.
All of the residents at the shelter were young, vulnerable women and many had become mothers at a time in their life when her own trials and difficulties were overwhelming. The reality of life as a single mother on a low income in a society that favours the educated and the ambitious is fraught with obstacles that are invisible to people outside of the subculture of homelessness, domestic violence and sole parenting.
The Revolving Door
Why are some people drawn to working in a shelter when others will go through their whole lives never setting foot inside of a women’s refuge or a domestic violence shelter?
The basic salary is not a reflection of the level of experience and skill of the shelter staff and career paths are limited, which is why many young social work graduates work in shelters as a career stepping stone on their way to a far better paying position of influence and opportunity.
It is my experience that there are two common reasons women choose to work in women’s shelters and neither are to do with financial reward. It is dedication and optimism.
Shelter workers are very optimistic regardless of the domestic violence statistics that say family violence is on the rise or the number of times a woman returns to access a service that she had said she will never need to see again.
Women who work in shelters are dedicated to the long term support of families who are vulnerable to budget cuts and housing shortages and to the women who are at risk of exploitation and harm by abusive partners . In the face of shrinking housing stock and limited access to education and resources, women’s shelter staff are resolute in their commitment to advocating for safe, secure and affordable housing for marginalised women with children.
Dedication and optimism are the oxygen that breathes life into women’s shelters even though their budgets and programs are often the first to be cut during the tightening-budget phase of funding cycles and in the aftermath of elections.
Shelters that accommodate children have an extra layer of optimism and resilience. They are staffed by highly skilled children’s workers, equipped with a level of insight and sensitivity that enables them to navigate complex relationships with young women who are often very suspicious of the motives of the staff who they generically refer to as The Workers.
As a staff team we recognised that the devastating circumstances homeless women have experienced can be addressed in the case management process or at the very least their trauma can be attended to in a supportive and dedicated environment when a care plan is put in place.
I was one of The Workers in a team of ten women for a period of ten years at a shelter I will refer to as The Women’s Village. During that time I also sat on an Aboriginal women’s domestic violence service and as a board member of The Big Issue street magazine. The Women’s Village was a small community based organisation that provided accommodation and support to homeless young mothers and their children . We were the gatekeepers standing at the revolving door. Women arrived with deeply ingrained trauma and were often living out inherited family chaos that placed them into a web of poverty, family violence and limited opportunity from birth. Their children had often experienced a great deal of upheaval in their short lives and many were already familiar with the day to day routine of refuge life.
Our shelter was not the preferred place for the women who had strong, supportive networks, empowering family relationships or access to resources, however if one of our residents did have this level of support, she would usually only stay for a short time and having escaped domestic violence, would return to her supportive family shortly after.
By their very nature, women’s shelters are a place where women and children go when there is nowhere else to go.
It was not uncommon for a woman to leave with her children and return a few weeks or months later. Promises of love, promises to change, promises of a better future with troubled and sometimes dangerous men kept her trapped in the domestic violence cycle so it was our job to offer her domestic violence education and personal development training so that she could recognise the cycle and the inevitable stages that always left her vulnerable and in harms way.
Each woman has her own unique story about her relationship with her children’s father and even though her age and stage of emotional development and health issues may keep her anchored deeply in the events of a troubled past, we often witnessed great courage and determination throughout the months and, in the early days, sometimes the years that she was supported by our agency.
Homeless young mothers are one of the most vulnerable groups in Australian society so embarking on the journey of parenting at a time when she was discovering her own identity is a huge undertaking for a teenager and each staff member at the shelter would play a different role in supporting her in that journey.
We were a staff team of ten women of different ages, backgrounds, cultural and spiritual beliefs. Some of us were academically qualified and others brought their school-of-life experience to the team. To use the metaphor of The Women’s Village, we were the village chiefs, the aunties, enforcers of shelter rules and responsibilities . We were the mothers and the grandmothers who had walked our own journey to arrive at the shelter doors as a staff member. As service providers we were the educators and programs developers, the cleaners and the teachers, the advocates and motivators who often saw a young woman’s strength and potential long before it began to awaken in her own consciousness.
Although our service agreements referred to us as staff members, employees and management, there was much more to our role than the documents reflected. This is true across all residential shelters and it is one of the reasons I consider shelter staff to be the invisible army of workers and volunteers in the public conversations about domestic violence. The dedicated staff who carry a woman’s story with her until she is ready to carry it alone are the least visible but most critical to the effectiveness and safety of the women’s shelter network
In a world that calls for a clear mind and strong sense of self to navigate the challenges of living in a complex, highly competitive world, our team recognised the importance of celebrating the smallest of achievements in the grandest way possible!
Our children’s workers always met with heartfelt acknowledgement the rare smile from a severely depressed teenage mother, who was struggling with a baby and insecure toddler. The survivor of sexual abuse who was making her escape from her second or third violent relationship with a new level of resolve was greeted with the cheers and affirmations of a staff team who understood that our job is to believe in her until she is ready to believe in herself.
We knew that her chances of living beyond merely surviving a deeply troubled past and developing the skills and knowledge to create a peaceful, secure life for herself and her children would require a huge amount of strength and resilience. Many women at the shelter were facing personal demons that haunted her every waking moment. Some of the staff members could relate to the challenges she was facing because they had walked a similar journey and understood that she needed time to rest and rejuvenate, reflect and recover.
Our residents were young women who struggled to make sense of their situation and were confronted with the enormous challenge of making a better life for their children even though they faced overwhelming emotions and loneliness. I am trying to look after myself and I’ve never been very good at that and now I have two children to look after and I’m worried I will mess up their childhoods. Heartfelt, anguished concerns that I heard over and over in the 10 years I hosted our in-house personal development group.
It was the responsibility of the staff team to create a safe and secure shelter whilst also managing the daily currents of anger, frustration, sadness, grief and despair within the walls of the shelter. Concerns about lost parenting payments, bank accounts raided by the ex-partner, unpaid electricity bills from the home they had fled and needs assessments for traumatised children took up large amounts of time and resources. Fear, uncertainty, stress and grief were expressed and exhaled on a daily basis.
Transport to appointments, referrals for food vouchers for baby formula and nappies, accessing legal aid, hospital visits and trauma counseling, the list of urgent matters needing immediate attendance is exhaustive across women’s services. Leaving domestic violence is a big step that becomes the catalyst for the complex process of sorting through the practical aspects of creating a new life.
Although all of the young women were mothers, the reality was that many of the troubled young women living in our shelter and outreach properties were unable to meet their children’s needs as they had not yet begun to understand their own.
Homeless shelters provide a place of rest and refuge for some of the most marginalised, traumatised members of society and whilst every woman had her own unique story and not everyone was carrying deep scars of childhood abuse and neglect, it was a common enough experience that most of the young women who came to live at the shelter were considered to have high needs and were assessed as at risk by the social workers who referred them
Sharing a common bond of homelessness, young motherhood and youth culture, the programs we ran were an opportunity to learn about different ideas and alternatives to the path they have been travelling. We made sure that the programs were relevant to their age group and sometimes we got it wrong but most of the time we were able to create training tools that were adaptable for all levels of literacy levels and cultural
For some it was a turning point that they would grab with both hands and cling to with fierce determination, willingly accepting the support of the staff and the services we brought in as necessary to leaving the past and creating a new life for her self and her children. Equally many would return to their former life after a brief respite in the highly structured and closely supervised environment of the shelter. We are going to give it another go. He said he has really changed this time and I believe him .The kids miss him. We would make sure she had our phone number before fare welling her from the site. The younger staff, the newly graduated social workers, sometimes anguished over a resident’s return to a relationship that had brought her nothing but heartache and grief.
The older staff understood her anguish, we had all witnessed it at the revolving door as we welcomed and fare welled the young women. Each of us had to learn how to detach emotionally as a vulnerable woman made a potentially life threatening choice. We had learnt to stay connected to compassion along with a willingness to allow her to experience what she needed to learn beyond the walls of the shelter.
Occasionally two of our residents would realise they had lived in the same foster placement or government operated group home. The universe had aligned with finite precision and placed them in the same place at the same time to meet. The reunion would reflect either the worst or the best of their shared backgrounds.
They called one another the GOM kids. As children they had been placed under the Guardianship of the Minister. Government departments and an army of youth workers and foster care providers became the parent figures to replace the birth parents who were no longer the primary care giver in their lives.
Women arrive at shelters with their children in strollers, their belongings in large red, white and blue plastic bags. Sometimes their possessions are in large black bin bags, toys and toiletries hastily bundled together inside of thin biodegradable plastic that has ripped and torn during the journey from the boot to the shelter door. The young family may have left the crisis refuge in the inner city or emergency accommodation in a motel in order to set up a temporary new home inside of one of the eight on site units that we had named Peace in 8 languages that they did not yet understand. New residents arriving would sometimes pass the old ones leaving.
Social workers, counselors and occasionally family members accompanied the new arrivals. Those same family members might also be the source of her struggle and her conflicted feelings and she may tell us that she had lived at the shelter with her own mother 15years ago. The older staff would nod, remembering the family and what her mother was going through at the time. During our tea break we would reflect on what we remembered about her as a little girl and whether or not we could recall where the family went after they left the shelter all those years ago. Our oldest shelter worker had a razor sharp memory and her fondness for the little girl she once knew brought a level of heart and soul to The Village that could never be captured in the data and statistics that was diligently included in our annual general report year in and year out.
Our referrals came from a variety of community organisations, specialist support agencies, family support workers and early intervention professionals. Where were the artists and story tellers, the dancers and song writers amongst the decision makers, the researchers, academics, therapists, social workers and counselors you might ask?
How often did we see a young woman’s creative skills or interests detailed in her referral reports or amongst the voluminous case notes that followed her from service to service? Never.
Did her intake forms recommend placing a notebook, coloured pens, brush or canvas into the hands of the women? No.
Unfortunately creativity and the potential of the imagination was not discussed amongst the professionals or referenced in her files yet in the coming years we witnessed that these were the very tools that often facilitated the greatest change in a young woman’s life.
Creativity as a Tool for Transformation
Creativity as a vehicle for goal setting and personal development is not the preferred tool in the homeless sector. Reference to creativity won’t be found on intake or referral forms and funding for hands on, imaginative programs is almost non existent in women’s shelters. Although there is a growing recognition that arts based mental health programs are beneficial for relaxation, creative expression and well being, the limited nature of funding for homeless shelters and programs precludes the arts and creative processes.
A child’s experience in the western education system at the entry level is generally rich in creativity, dance, movement, developing the imagination & having fun! Variety and movement is a key to engaging children’s attention in the kindergarten class room.
The world of play and creativity at the pre-school level begins to be left behind once children step through a very different door to enter junior primary and step on to the long road that leads towards qualifying for university. The university lecture theatre could not be further away from the dynamic creativity of the early childhood world and by the time those who have done well in the system arrive there, they are often carrying the belief I am not creative.
Where the kindergarten’s internal and external spaces are designed for the development and use of imagination, play and exploration in a high activity setting, the next level of schooling requires a transition to sitting still for long periods and engaging in activities that do not involve the feet, song or the same level of movement.
Many of the women who came to the shelter had not completed high school and very few had a university education. With some exceptions the one hat, fits all approach to educating hundreds of thousands of children simultaneously means that the individual with her personal struggles and concerns can become lost within its corridors.
Most had come to believe they were not very smart and that learning created a great deal of stress with very few outcomes so it was to be avoided when ever possible.
I once asked one of our young social workers if she had any training in the subject of creativity during her years at university and her response was No, nothing like that, I hadn’t even thought about it until I began my placement here.
Many young people have not had success in the one-hat-fits-all approach to learning, especially the ones who are kinesthetic learners, who absorb information when there is movement and rhythm like there was in their early child hood. These are the young people who struggled with sitting still for years on end in the class room and by the time they arrived at our shelter they did not identify with the education system or the prospect of re-entering it.
We often saw the young mothers immerse themselves into play group activities with uncharacteristic concentration, absorbed in activities that were designed to develop a strong bond between mother and child. Play group often revealed a playful, imaginative child within the most troubled young woman and in her enthusiasm to play and enjoy the creative exercises, her child might be ignored as she immersed herself in the free flowing creativity that she had not experienced for many years.
In those early years it became apparent that whilst we had identified the importance of play and creativity, variety and fun for the developmental well being of the children in the shelter, it was time to pay attention to the daily evidence their mothers had the very same needs for creativity and play. In fact the same could also be said for the staff members of the agency, even though art, creativity, story telling and play for workers was a pretty outrageous concept in a sector that places high value on the importance of professionalism and a code of conduct that does not include dancing in a circle wearing fairy wings as we eventually did as a team for one of our staff meetings.
A significant number of the young women who came though our programs had been born into family systems that were assessed as a high risk environment. Some had spent their vulnerable childhood years surrounded by chaos and family violence with government departments, backed by court orders and mental health authorities. The adults in the lives of this marginalised group were often parents, grandparents, uncles and aunties who were afflicted by alcoholism and poverty and their own unresolved issues.
By the time the young women made their way to the shelter, it was time for a change!
C.H.A.N.G.E. –Creating Happiness And New Growth Everyday
To be continued