Have you ever wondered what it’s like for a domestic violence survivor arriving at a shelter? The following is a reflection from one of our shelter advocates, describing the experience of bringing a new person into the shelter for the first time.
It starts with the ‘pick-up’ as we call it, a time when advocates and the person agree to meet at a safe, public place so we can then transport them to the confidential shelter. Every person probably has a different emotional reaction as they wait and nervously check to see what car descriptions match what they were given. They often try and get a smile or a nod of assurance from the driver that they have the right car and that the two strange faces they see are in fact staff at the shelter. Staff yes, but strangers to whom they just disclosed a lot of personal information. Once they get the sign, the nod of assurance that they have the right people, then the next step becomes very real because they get in an unfamiliar car and come with us to a house that is lovely but is unfamiliar and not their home.
Once we get to the house, we typically show them their room and take them on a tour. We try our best to be thoughtful and go slow as we realize that stepping into that house is not an ordinary step. It’s a step that takes a lot of courage, it takes hope that just maybe you have a chance at safety, a chance to get housing, a chance to build. Sometimes there may be doubt, questioning if it was the right decision. I can only describe it as a whirlwind of emotions – relief at having a roof over your head, relief of having a bed and yet fear of the unknown, fear of what comes next, constant questions that come up: how long can I stay, what comes next, what do I say to my children? Sometimes those thoughts go unspoken. There are so many emotions and questions that it’s hard to figure out how to prioritize which question to ask first.
After we help them bring their personal belongings into their rooms, we give them some time to unwind, and to breathe. We give them a small basket of personal items, basics like shampoo, a razor, simple things, and that can be one of the most powerful moments. It may look a little different with every resident but it is so often met with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I have seen many tears at that exact moment. I think the tears may be for different reasons – appreciation, fear, confusion, disbelief, and maybe hope.
One thing we hear frequently is surprise at how beautiful REACH’s shelter is. Residents get a private room to share with their families, and our volunteers have done a wonderful job decorating each room with matching furnishings. It’s different than many other shelters and different from what people picture shelter to be. One new shelter guest said, “I was relieved when I walked in. I pictured a high school gym with cots. I put off going to shelter because that’s what I thought it would be. But when I saw this house I thought, I can be strong, I can do this.”
After a little time, the paperwork and the questions begin. We get the basic information the first day and go over the guidelines of the house. It’s hard and I can’t imagine too much is retained. It can’t be easy to be an adult, giving strangers personal information, listening to guidelines about chores, trying to pay attention and to shut out the thoughts and questions that are racing through your mind. We try to go slow and to respect each person’s limit, so that may be all the paperwork we do on day one. We let them take time to interact with all the other faces and residents at the shelter, or time to stay in their room and put up personal pictures or personal items that make them feel more comfortable, or just be quiet and breathe a little easier.
Day two we try to answer questions that may come up. We try to figure out the goals of each new resident and how we can support them in achieving those goals. There are often medical issues to see to, legal issues to deal with, housing and job goals to discuss. That’s up to the survivor to decide and for us to support. For the first step, we listen.