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When a Survivor Enters Emergency Shelter

A small brown leather suitcase sits on top of a larger, similar suitcase. The top suitcase is open and frilly linens spill out of it.

As an advocate who has worked at Genesis’ emergency shelter for seven years, I meet a variety of women from wide backgrounds. Regardless of where they come from, they all have one thing in common: they left an abusive situation, often in a hurry with only the clothes on their backs. Even if they were fortunate enough to bring a few of their belongings, they have left their homes behind.

When a woman enters the shelter on day one, she feels anxious and afraid. The intake process begins at the front office where a staff member greets the woman and any children she may have. She will be introduced to her advocate, given a tour and shown to the room that will be hers for the next six weeks. Women with children will never be separated, and will stay together in a private room. If there is limited space and with their permission, single women may be paired together in a room. Once she is settled in, she is given the chance to rest – we understand that this is a very sensitive time and she may need some space for her mind to process what is happening.

The first week, she is asked to identify her needs and what goals she wants to work on in counseling. There are many goals to consider: some of the main ones are housing and employment, medical needs and replacing clothing and personal items. Genesis tailors each woman’s experience specifically to what she needs to be successful.

During weeks two and three of the shelter stay, she works with her advocate to obtain childcare, employment and housing. Certain steps may take extra time based on her particular situation. Due to financial abuse, many women need the support of a longer term housing program such as Annie’s House to help get them back on their feet. Additionally, if she needs employment, she will begin the search for a job. She also has her children to consider: however, Genesis provides on-site childcare during the day so that she can work while knowing her children are safe.

Week four is often when reality begins to set in. She may be focused on all of the challenges that she faces in order to begin a new life free of violence. She may have a heightened sense of anxiety or urgency, as she is still not used to living somewhere without her abuser just around the corner. During this time, she will continue to work with her counselor to process these feelings and recognize that she is safe.

Finally, during weeks five and six, she and Genesis staff are working together to do everything necessary to prepare for the end of her stay. When thinking about her housing and employment needs, she may make arrangements to stay with a friend or family member that lives near her place of work. If that is not an option or she has not found affordable housing or employment yet, Genesis will help her find another shelter while she continues to search for housing and a job.

Six weeks seem like both forever and an instant. The emotions she experiences are intensified by the urgency of repairing a life that may have taken years of abuse. As an advocate, I am impressed and amazed at the courage that these women demonstrate when they leave an abusive relationship: it takes an incredible amount of resiliency to do whatever it takes to provide a safe home for herself and her children. It’s so difficult to convey the complexity and sensitivity within the shelter program – the strength of these women and their children is an amazing thing to witness, and it is an honor to be a part of their journey to safety and a new life.

Written by Kristene Ruddle, advocate for Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support