Spare Some Change? Institutional Change Must Be Guided By Leadership Who Listen

KendraMany years ago, I worked in a shelter that served chronically homeless women.

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.

2 Responses

  1. jessy

    This was very good to read.
    When I was volunteering in San Francisco during my year there, the more established volunteers and employees in the food shelter and winter shelter I served often talked about the pattern of leadership in the city. A new leader would establish themselves, in part due to their percieved initiative to take on the challenge of the (then) 15,000+ population of citizens without housing, and then quickly try to implement methods or tactics that didn’t suit and/or quickly run out of steam or money or both.
    I like your use of talking about clothing. It”s something that I’d been ignorant of or unaware of till now.

  2. In the US, almost immediately after LBJ (who created anti-poverty and welfare programs which mostly helped poor women) left office and Nixon got elected, there was an immediate backlash against LBJ’s Great Society social programs for the poor.

    In the early 1970’s, lawmakers in the state of Nevada where prostitution is legal and “regulated” and most of the brothels are owned by members of the Bonano crime family, passed a law forcing poor younger women who applied for welfare to first take “work” in the legal brothels (since prostitution is legal there, it is a “job just like any other”).

    The National Welfare Rights Union, which was a grassroots org spearheaded by poor single mothers receiving a paltry welfare benefit under AFDC, launched a massive protest right out in front of Nevada’s infamous Mustang Ranch brothel to protest poor women being forced into prostitution by the state (which essentially made the state of Nevada guilty of human trafficking). Several feminists, including Gloria Steinem, joined in and protested with the National Welfare Rights Union.

    The protests forced the state lawmakers (many whom were brothel owners themselves) to back down because the public outcry was tremendous.

    As a poor trafficked woman who never got a chance for a job after escaping my traffickers 31 years ago no matter what/how hard I tried in order to be “worthy” of a chance, I never had access to medical and dental care and some semblance of a stable life. I experienced this classist, sexist, misogynous “ME ME ME” male-dominated society in its shit-stained underwear—not its fancy lecture suit.

    The very short-lived Great Society programs “failed” because they were sabotaged by privileged academicians from elite universities, policymakers,Congress and every president after LBJ almost immediately after LBJ implemented them, thanks to the middle class/rich white male supremacist political climate that has always been deeply entrenched in this country, which still thoroughly permeates society to this day.

    Privileged upper-middle class academicians deliberately stood on their privileges to lead the War on the Poor, particularly against poor women, starting with the Moynihan report. The Moynihan report not only racialized poverty to the point of erasing both female poverty and white poverty, it also dehumanized ALL of the poor in general.

    Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report was influenced heavily by Harvard urbanologist, Edward C. Banfield who was a “leading scholar of his generation”, and who was also one of Moynihan’s drinking buddies. According to Banfield, the poor “have no interest in the public good” and are “pre-occupied with having sex.”

    Banfield held that the only way to ensure that the poor got chances for jobs was to abolish the minimum wage. He also suggested that the only way to get rid of poverty was to get rid of the poor—preferably by “auctioning off poor women’s babies to the highest normal class bidder.”

    Banfield not only influenced Moynihan’s report, he also served as an advisor to former presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan.

    Since Ivy League academia as a bastion of privilege produced “scholarship” claiming that poor women couldn’t keep their legs shut because of the lower class’s “pre-occupation with having sex”, it’s no wonder that America’s privileged classes decided that prostitution was the only thing poor women were good for.

    When Clinton “ended welfare as we know it” in 1996, nothing was done to ensure that this country’s poorest women would be welcomed into middle class jobs.

    Nothing was done to remedy the problem of sex discrimination in hiring/firing/promotion/pay.

    Nothing was done to ensure that poor women being thrown off of their measly $4K annual welfare aid, which never was enough to live on, would have access to advanced educations, apprenticeships, and have any legally enforceable and protected right to a toehold onto even the lowest rung of the middle class jobs ladder.

    Nothing was ever done to guarantee 100% full employment for all who are able to work so that nobody—regardless of age, race, gender or disability—would be socially and economically excluded and left unable to economically fend for themselves.

    All of the funding cuts to welfare and the elimination of other social programs for the poor starting with Reagan leading up to Clinton’s Welfare Reform was a real boon for johns—men who use their money to buy rape tickets, who are child rapists if we’re going to be honest about it. These rape ticket buyers are also the most ardent opponents of any legitimate welfare social safety net for the jobless poor, because that would greatly reduce (if not eliminate) the number one condition of vulnerability that forces women and girls into prostitution: Poverty due to structural oppression and systemic economic/job discrimination.

    Our domestic sex trafficking crisis in The US is one of the most shameful, darkest legacies of America’s War on the Poor because poor women and girls were not merely collateral damage in these past 40+ years of the War on the Poor—we were the primary target.

    Those with the most privileges in this country say “well why aren’t the poor dying in the streets like over in the slums of Mumbai?” without looking at the countless POOR WOMEN who died out on the streets of America that were written off as “No Human Involved” by cops (who enjoy middle class job security with medical and dental benefits, paid vacations, and pension plans) because of being “only prostitutes.”

    And of course, no one questioned how/why so many poor women and girls got pressed into the commercial rape trade in the first place, either—they already knew the answer to that. Society already decided that the gutter and an early grave was the only place for poor women.

    I don’t know how many of my fallen trafficked/prostituted sisters’ bodies have gone unclaimed in morgues after their deaths didn’t even make a blip on the news. Nobody has been counting them. Nobody ever cared.

    And of course, not a single raindrop ever believed it was responsible for causing the flood.

    Systems of oppression do not happen by accident in a fit of collective absent-mindedness; they’re upheld and perpetuated by deliberate intent. And that deliberate intent is all about preserving privileges for some at the expense of others—those without privilege.

    Systemic oppression is a privilege transfer vehicle that serves up the human rights of consumable, disposable people in economies of scale. Privilege occupies the space where someone else’s human and social rights belong.

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