Rachel said the women who participate in Room In the Inn (RITI), Campus’ winter shelter program, are like artichokes. Their hearts are hidden by overlapping layers of abuse, addiction, mental illness, and inconsistency. I’ve been told that when physical abuse or addiction begin in a person’s life, they stop maturing. The end product is women in the bodies of 25 to 60 year-olds, sometimes interacting among themselves and with others as if they were in junior high school.
Attendance at women’s group is mandatory for those women who want to participate in RITI.
It is stressful being a woman and being homeless. The word on the Nashville streets is that a women, by herself on the street, will be raped within 48 hours. Few of these women have had healthy relationships with their parents, extended family, men, or one another.
What I wanted
I volunteered to facilitate the women’s group at Campus for Human Development, Nashville’s homeless adult day center, without previous experience in similar work. I wanted the women to show self-determination. I wanted them to soak up every word I spoke about conflict management, self-worth, and pro-activity with regard to jobs, housing, mental illness, and relationships. Of course, I wanted them to—not for my pride but for their well being.
But despite what I wanted and even what the women want, we cannot be unrealistic nor expect specific outcomes. Groups, communities, and friendships are a process. Homelessness, although an urgent problem, is caused by a matrix of conditions that are only resolved slowly and patiently. Sometimes these problems are never resolved.
In the past, when I thought of “women,” I pictured groups crying, laughing, joking, back-stabbing, evil looks, fingernail polish, lipstick, and cigarette breaks. With so many things I have done this year, I have felt too young and inexperienced. Facilitating this class was no exception. But after days of anxiety and frustration—because I had no framework to work from—I came to these conclusions:
- I am a woman too and am not so different from these homeless women because of our shared humanity.
- I cannot do everything by myself, but I can ask for help.
- My experiences and knowledge are a valuable resource and I cannot be afraid to share them.
- Each woman is responsible for her choices and actions. I am powerless to change the women with words and actions, they have to change themselves.
The women I see every day are strong women. Hey, they make it on the streets, and I get scared waiting for the bus in broad daylight. Although my stereotypical assumptions about “women” have manifested themselves in real life scenarios, these women are more than superficial beauty products and character flaws.
We get excited when a beaming woman announces she is pregnant or when she and a long-time, faithful partner are going to be married. The women laugh at me for getting frustrated or looking too surprised. We joke over cheesy art projects as the inner child in each of us gets to play. Betty gives advice about thrifty food shopping. Laura talks about her kids in foster care. The whole group gets on Tamika for being in a dangerous relationship. And what about Norma? She spent the night pacing up and down the room at the RITI church and got into it with Ann the next morning. Same story two nights ago.
These women do not need me and I do not need them to survive. Somehow, however, we are helping each other out. The spirit of community is slowly developing among the women; I have been forced to be assertive. I even have a sneaking suspicion that, after two months, some of the women look forward to the hour we spend together each day.