Q: At the shelter I’m currently at, there are bed bugs, they were feeding us expired food and they refused to bring me to my doctor or my counselor. I was sleeping on the floor for a month, along with another woman, because we were getting eaten alive by bugs. Now the shelter is trying to send me further away because of this issue. I suffer from PTSD and I’m freaking out, and so are my kids. – T.S.
Making the call to put your life on hold and move with your children into a shelter is not an easy decision. You had to leave behind your home and everything familiar and comfortable. It’s a choice you no doubt made in order to save your life.
So, to find less-than-desirable living conditions once you made this courageous step is understandably frustrating, and it’s disheartening to hear. Individuals who have not experienced abuse or lived in a shelter should understand that barriers like poor shelter conditions are one reason why survivors sometimes return to their abusers.
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Since I don’t know which shelter you’re at, I can’t contact them to discuss your concerns. But I want to believe the majority of domestic violence shelters don’t intend to mistreat the survivors who seek safety with them. Let’s start with the bed bug situation—even shelters with great reputations can fall victim to the onslaught of bed bugs. Erin Clark is the director of SAFEline, the hotline and online chat service with the domestic violence nonprofit SAFE in Austin, Texas. She also helps oversee their shelter, which houses up to 36 adults and sometimes up to 80 children. At one point, bed bugs invaded their shelter, too, which meant scrambling to accommodate survivors while also finding money in the budget they didn’t plan for.
“Getting rid of bed bugs isn’t inexpensive. It takes sealing off an entire room, sometimes an entire area, while it’s being heat-treated,” says Clark. But, they were able to find a workaround. “We turned meeting spaces into temporary bedrooms. We sent some survivors to local hotels. And we tried to be proactive so it wouldn’t happen again.”
If the shelter you’re at isn’t taking care of the bed bug problem, it might be a financial issue. Or, they may not realize how serious the problem is. In any case, your concerns should be heard, Clark says. And that goes for the food situation and the issue of finding transportation to see a doctor. In order to raise these complaints in a productive manner, Clark says there are several things you can try:
1. If you haven’t already, start by talking to your counselor or case manager within the shelter. “Usually, that’s who clients have a connection to and together, they can look for potential solutions.”
2. If that doesn’t work, go to their supervisor or see if you can make an appointment with the shelter director.
3. Ask if there is a grievance process in place. For SAFE, that process looks like a worksheet a survivor fills out detailing what their concern is, when it happened, the details of what occurred and how they’d like to see the problem resolved. “It’s submitted to the shelter director and, if she needs support, it’s taken to the executive director. We’ve had a lot of success with this.”
4. If trying to be heard within the shelter doesn’t seem to be working, Clark says you may also consider contacting your state coalition. “They are there to oversee various shelter and domestic violence programs and to receive feedback.”
Clark says SAFE also utilizes a peer support program to hear survivors’ grievances at shelter. “It consists of volunteer survivors who have previously been in shelter. They offer weekly group sessions with current shelter clients to talk about concerns.” Clark says the shelter purposefully doesn’t have staff members sit in on these sessions so their clients feel free to talk about anything that might be bothering them with their peers. She says the group is “full of wisdom” when it comes to working out shelter-related issues.
Why Not Leave?
Some people may wonder why you can’t just leave this shelter, T.S., and find a different, and better, one. I know it’s unfortunately not that simple. And judging by your reluctance to be moved “further away,” I’m assuming the area you’re in now is where you’d like to stay. Perhaps where you are is where your children go to school, or where you work. You may not have transportation to get to another place. And even if you did, often times, there isn’t another shelter you can go to. In many cities, there is only one domestic violence shelter.
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“In Austin, we’re the only domestic violence shelter,” says Clark. “There’s one other homeless shelter, but that’s it. If folks aren’t satisfied with the services they’re getting here, there aren’t really other alternatives, and often, the shelters outside of Austin are just as full as we are.” She adds that many domestic violence survivors are hesitant to go to a homeless shelter. “Because of their trauma, they prefer being with other survivors who have been through the same thing.”
Hopefully, voicing your concerns following the steps above will create some positive changes. In the meantime, I encourage you to take steps to care for yourself and your children. Read, “Spoiling Your Kids the Right Way,” for tips on how to nurture children who have experienced trauma. To calm yourself in times of high stress, consider meditation: Here are five meditations you can try anywhere.
Ask Amanda is meant to offer helpful resources and information about domestic violence. If in crisis, please reach out to your nearest domestic violence shelter for the guidance of a trained advocate.
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