About eight years ago I worked in an emergency shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence. During the time I worked there I constantly had a cold or whatever. Doctor said it was nothing. Me, I know it's because the stories kept buiding inside of me. Calling me to let them out. These notes are about some of the clients and cases. The names have been changed to protect the...
KEISHA, KEISHA, KEISHA
Keisha was a three year old grown up black girl who was from Lake Charles, Louisiana. Chocolate skin, three ponytails, barrettes (all the time too many barrettes), smart mouth and magazine pretty. One day she was in the play area over by the steps playing house.
Me: Keisha, what are you doing over there?
Keisha: Cookin' greens. I got all this to do before Tonya nim come over tonight.
Keisha, in disgust threw down the pretend spoon and stormed over to Michael, a two year old white boy from Arkansas who barely spoke. Michael was playing basketball.
Keisha: (all up in his face) Look, I been in the house cookin' all day n workin' hard n carryin' on and you out here shootin' baskets like it's the business! Whatchu think this is huh? Whatchu gon do?
Keisha was sitting at the arts and crats table with Michael and Tony, a Mexican three year old boy from Tijuana. Keisha dealt the playing cards. Michael and Tony were "counting" them and throwing them across the table. Keisha, on the other hand, had her cards fanned out as if she was a professional card player.
Keisha: I got two books, whatchu got?
Keisha and Michael were racing the toy cars. Michael had the red one and Keisha had the blue one that kept coming in a distant second. Michael went to the restroom and when he returned his car was gone.
Me: Keisha, do you have Michael's car?
Keisha: No, his car got towed.
Randy and Theresa are brother and sister at the time aged three and four respectively. They came to the shelter with their mother Becca mid October 2004 from Texas. They showed up in the middle of the night with stories from Dallas to Los Angeles all over their worn faces.
It takes a special kind of person to work in a domestic violence shelter I found. I also found that I am not one of them. I spent almost the whole time I was there trying to save everybody. Donating my clothes to the women, children's clothes I could find to the children, working more overtime than was healthy for me. Those women and children became part of my family. Lines were crossed. Just as quickly as they would come, they would leave. It hurt every time. No goodbye, just gone. Becca, Randy and Theresa left like that.
Randy: Theresa, you git your fuckin' ass in this damn house you fuckin' bitch!
Theresa: What do you want you fuckin' asshole?!
Randy: What do you think I want you bitch? My fuckin' food on the table you fuckin' whore!
At that point Randy locked Theresa out of the house and pretended to throw all of her clothes out.
Me: Theresa, come here, sweetheart.
Theresa: What do you want you black fuckin' nigger bitch?!
November 8, 2004
I came into work this morning not knowing what to expect. Karmen called me last night and told me that two clients had left and two more had come in. Both new ones had babies under two years old. I was sad to hear that the two families who left were my favorites. Monica, Mexican, fifty-four, with four children, Hector sixteen, Annalisa thirteen, Lucia twelve and Junior nine. All very bright and had witnessed way too much for their young lives. Especialy Annalisa who had too many hats to wear. Mother to her siblings and often even to her mother, daughter, friend, cook, disiplinarian, teacher, translator, and up until about two weeks ago, wife to her father. I knew that it was only a matter of time before the house would be too much for all of them.
The women in the house tend to gang up on the new families, especially the ones that don't speak English. Bullying them into kitchen duties, taking their money and other belongings, picking on their children. Some fight back, some don't. Many leaving deciding that it was easier being on the streets. Sometimes it is.
November 10, 2004
Today the team had its weekly meeting. We discussed some of the clients in the house. I was a little nervous about this particular meeting because we discussed one of the clients I had grown pretty attached to, Monica. She has five chidren, Martin seventeen, Lupe and Lola fifteen and Mike and Ricardo three. She is a kind woman with bright chidren but she is "low functioning" according to her files and makes very poor judgments.
We had to decide whether or not we were going to let her into the transitional homes. Transitional homes are apartments where the clients with children get their own apartments. The single mothers share apartments. It's a good deal because the women get up to two years to get their lives together and get a place of their own. They can even, are are encouraged to work. The monthy rent they pay is based on their income. And at the end of two years when they are ready for their own apartments, they get the money back. Many dont make it, but some do.
Anyway Monoica. She was a forty-five year old woman who dresses and tries to look like a sisteen year old girl. She has never had her own place with her children. They have lived in shelter after shelter with peverted uncle after shelter. She was never very compliant with the case plans in the different departments we had. I wanted to vote that we accept her but I didn't want her to get into the apartment and then continue being noncompliant with the rules and get herself and her children kicked out.
She reverts to this baby baby girl when she was uncomfortable. Which was today at the meeting with the team. She came in wearing a soft pink terry cloth jogging suit and had her bleached blonde hair up in two ponytails and pink and butterfly pins. She had on pink lipstick and blue eye shadow. She was even sucking on a lillipop. And then there were the blue contacts.
"I'll do whatever you want me to do. I promise I wont be noncompliant again. I prooooomise." I was just waiting for the extended pleeeeeeeeeeease. "I'm really sorry. I'm trying to get my life together. I'm trying to get a job and take care of my kids and everything." This is a woman who hasn't worked since the eighties.
Staff: What do you plan to do as far as work?
Monica: I want a good job, you know? A real good one. I don't wanna be working at no McDonald's or Wal-Mart or nothin' like that.
Not what they wanted to hear.
Toward the middle of November one of the clients came to the house after curfew drunk. It just so happened that Karmen, an off duty staff member was there. If she had not been there, Mary a very petite, older staff memeber would have been on duty alone for two hours. Cathy was very surprised when she found out that Karmen was there. We noticed that the clients would take advantage of Mary because they felt that they could intimidate her. And they did. Karmen wouldn't let Cathy in the house that night and Cathy got really loud. And we were already having problems with the neighbors not wanting us there. Cathy, drunk or not, knew what she was doing. Karmen let her in and escorted her up to her room to get her things and told her that she was going to have to leave the house that night. Whatever your state of sobriety, you're not punking Karmen. Five feet ten inches, thick, social worker, black woman who knew all the tricks of shelter living.
While Karmen was distracted, another client unlocked the back door while another one went to the kitchen and got a knife and pulled it on Mary. Mary had been taunted a few weeks before that time and that incident seemed to be in the works. The police were called and Mary wasn't hurt. Just scared. I had hoped that there would be an easy resolution to this. Easy meaning, one I wouldn't cry about for weeks.
Some of the women had been approved for transitional homes. Monica and her children were one of the families. This would be the first time they had ever lived in an apartment by thenselves. Ever. The house directors had a meeting and decided, three days before Thanksgiving, that they would clear the whole house. Yes, everyone had to go. The families who were just approved for transitional homes too. All of them had to find other shelters to go to, family members who would take them in, go back on the street, whatever, just had to go. All of this would happen the next day. I knew this and tossed and turned the whole night. I had grown attached to the children and some of the mothers.
In the children's department the next morning, instead of adding glitter to the Thanksgiving Day cards, we packed up their belongings. I cried the whole way through. I was holding onto babies as mothers one by one snatched them out of my arms screaming at me as if I had everything to do with what was happening. "Gimmie my muthafuckin' baby! Bitch!" I was "Bitch" several times that day. How do I turn over a child to a mother screaming for her "muthafuckin' baby" and had no place to go? But I had to. When the children left I sat in my chair and cried and prayed. Then Lupe, Monica's fifteen year old daughter came into my office. Just sat there. No tears. You thought a crying teenager was something to see, try one who had cried out all of her tears. She looked at me. I told her I had nothing to do with it and how sorry I was. As if that helped. Lupe was such an incredible writer and had a story that would inspire anyone.
Before they moved to that shelter they, the five of them were living in a car downtown Los Angeles. She woud do her homework in the middle of the night while her famiy was sleeping. She said that she got her stories from staying up late and watching the crack addicts out of her "bedroom" window. Then she would go to school and get picked on by the students and some of the teachers. I didn't know what else to say to her. I asked her to promise me that she would not stop writing. Again she looked at me. Then slowly she told me that two days before that was one of the happiest days in her life. She went to Target with her famiy and they bought a broom, a mop and two pots for their apartment they they would be moving into just three days away. Their firt apartment. No more perverted uncles, no more living in cars, no more shelters, their place. And then this. "So, no" she said, " I can't promise you that I will keep writing. But Ii do promise you, and cross my heart, that I will never be homelss again. Even if it means I have to go to jail."
She hugged me, wiped my tears and left.