February 19, 2014

Homelessness: The Forgotten Women


I have, for the last 7 weeks, been facilitating a women's grassroots organizing group as part of my practicum placement. The group I'm working with are women living in transitional housing, and the process that I am taking them through is presented as a scheduled, mandatory class for the house. This situation is unique to this group; most groups form because the women have already identified something in their lives that they want to change. But these women, my women, have no choice but to show up every Tuesday, regardless of how tired they are, how much they worked, if their child is sick, if they're just feeling cranky and want to be alone.

And so it has been hard, and the learning curve parabolic. The women warmed up to me quickly, but not to the forced sessions, the extra work, or the continual time spent around each other--these strangers plucked from the streets. I've watched the tension build in them and between them these past two months as women got sick, were forced out of the house, found other living situations or jobs, and stared in the face of the crushing constriction of poverty with no real end in sight.

The culmination of my time with them is supposed to be an action on a social justice issue of their choosing. Naturally, we gravitated toward housing. Yet I realized that the women were having a hard time getting behind the cause: writing letters to our legislators defending housing funding. Little progress was being made on their work, and I needed to open them up and learn why.

I sat in the office before my last meeting, listening to the stories of in-fighting, belittling, avoidance. I heard about how they were shutting down, even with the simple task of writing a letter according to the outline I'd submitted. And I thought about what it was like -- this loss of choice, or freedom to move around; not knowing where you'll be the next day; your housing hinging on the whims of those around you. And so I decided to bring that discomfort to our session, and ask them to tell me what they thought of when they thought of being a woman with no home. 

The following speech is an excerpt of what came out of that process. One of the women will deliver it Friday in Olympia, in front of 600 advocates there to meet with their district representatives.

"This is the face of a homeless woman: mothers and mothers-to-be, washing dishes and cleaning houses, looking for work, anywhere, to be able to stay close to their families. Women with back pain, anxiety, hot flashes. Women who have survived rape, domestic violence, addiction, the deaths of their children. The work they find doesn't pay nearly enough for market-rate rent, let alone downpayments, background checks, registration fees, first-and-last month's rent. 

These are the words they use to describe themselves:

Fearful. Incomplete. Destitute. Limited. Muted. Tense. Desperate.

These are the words they use to describe their lives:

I feel on hold. And even though I know that there's no escape, I also know that at any moment, I could be out on the street. I feel like a naked woman under a magnifying glass. Never alone, always expecting someone around the corner. And yet still alone, because my family is so far away. Everything is magnified when you're homeless: fear, risk, rage. Addiction. Every problem you thought you'd overcome, comes back, and you can't get away. 

My sisters wanted to tell you this: Home is choice. It's family. It's comfort. It's knowing that you can have your candle, and a glass of wine, and a cat at your feet and a dog in your lap, and feel safe. It's where you feel free, enclosed, and safe. 

My Circle's Motto is: I'm every woman. A woman who works, loves, hurts, survives, births, and mourns. A woman who deserves safety. A woman who deserves a home.

I ask you, think about us, your mothers and sisters, and hold us in your hearts today. The need for low income housing and services to empower the low income population in Seattle is so great, and unfortunately, still not nearly enough."

I'm proud of them, and I hope that on Friday I can make them proud of me, too.


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