I was recently invited to give a speech for a supportive program that helps homeless families with housing and resources. This is my true story of surviving domestic violence, what it is like to be homeless and enter the shelter system.. and how supportive programs make a positive difference to stabilize, and ensure better outcomes for families.
“Emily Court”, October 2018.
I would like to tell you a little about what my experience with homelessness and domestic violence, and how a supportive program made a positive impact on my life, and that of my children.
My children and I became homeless in 2006 due to domestic violence. In a matter of seconds we lost everything – our home, our car, our pets, our belongings-gone. I had never been on my own before and suddenly, and without any warning, I was thrown onto the streets with two traumatized children. I did not know where to go. Or to who to call for help. I had no idea what we were going to do to get through one day to the next. Despite that, being on the street was much safer than being at home.
I started out staying with family members but that was not safe because my abusive ex was stalking and harassing me. I stayed with friends for a time. And slept in the car. I would drive around all night until the kids fell asleep then pull into a parking lot. My thought was that if the kids fell asleep first, maybe they would not realize we were actually living in the car. During the day, I kept the kids busy going to free museums or parks. I also got books from a charity and then began to teach my kids the Bible and basic school subjects. It was a tough time but also an adventurous time, and in many ways, my children and I grew closer.
I remember how strange it was to enter the shelter system because I always told my kids, don’t go with strangers, and that was exactly what we were doing. We loaded up into a van with a bunch of strangers, and spent the night sleeping on a pile of blankets on the floor of a school gymnasium as part of Project Home. We were pretty lucky to be in a school building because we had access to showers. There was a cardboard divider around our sleeping area and I drew cartoons on it with marker to make it cozy for the kids.
We befriended the other families in the shelter. I remember that before bedtime, the Project Home volunteers would come in to play games or read stories to the kids. It gave the adults a little time to relax. We would share a can of powdered cappuccino, mixed with hot water, and talk. The lights were always turned out around 8 pm but we had ways of sending messages. One night the volunteers turned the lights out then caught someone talking. We all held our breath, wondering if there would be trouble. Instead, the volunteer decided to turn the lights back on for an extra 15 minutes… I remember how everyone in the room cheered. I can honestly say, the small acts of kindness meant a great deal, because we had all lost so much.
A big problem I faced was that those running the shelter were not educated about domestic violence, and how trauma affects children. Things like safety planning, legal services, therapy and advocacy services were not available. One staff member made fun of my child for sucking on a pacifier, when the truth was that my child was regressing due to abuse, and this was a sign that he desperately needed help. Another time my child was have a flashback and fell on the floor, screaming and crying, and the staff told me to just spank my child until he behaved. I knew I had to get out of the shelter but did not know where to turn.
There were always lines at the shelter to use the phone. Every chance I got I was calling, trying to get a better place to stay. And every time it was the same answer: too expensive, get on the waiting list or the waiting list is closed. And then I got to the last page of the phone book, and found this program. It was literally my last hope. I was excited to be put on the waiting list…and I waited.
In the meanwhile, we moved to the Ramsey County family shelter, this was not an improvement by any means. The Ramsey County family shelter is run like a jail. In the shelter, everyone is treated like a problem that needs to be fixed – our needs and humanity don’t matter. My kids needed so much help. My child’s condition worsened and he had to be hospitalized due to severe trauma and PTSD. The abuser sought sole custody of both children so I was in and out of family court. I really needed someone to talk to, but there was no one. My family was in crisis, and I felt totally alone. The breaking point came when I had to go to family court, and had to pay $50 for daycare while I attended a hearing. The $50 came out of the shelter told me to escrow. But I also needed to be in court, and I had no other way to pay for daycare. I tried to explain my situation to staff, and show receipts and court papers, but it did not matter. I violated the rules, and now we were being kicked out of the Ramsey County family shelter. I packed up my kids in temperatures nearing 100 and dreaded the thought of sleeping in our car. When I shut the back door, it did not close all the way. The car door was broken, and now unsafe for my kids to be in, it could swing open at any time. Could things get any worse?
I was lucky to find a domestic violence shelter with space to take my family. Then one day I got an unexpected call…a program had an opening. I was so excited! My brother let me borrow his car and we drove into yet another unknown. I remember how my kids and I sang to the radio really loud, on the way. We rolled down all the windows, and let our joy be heard.
This is what it felt like to be accepted into the program: the excitement of Christmas. The shelter system wasn’t perfect but we had a roof over our heads, food to eat and were safe. That being said, we also missed out on a lot of what most people take for granted. Such as having a real bathtub, to fill up with bubbles and let my kids splash inside. The program offered housing with a kitchen – our own stove, fridge and cabinets. We had been living out of bags for so long, I almost forgot what it was to have a real kitchen! Our first meal was traditional, from recipes that were passed down in my family for generations: BBQ ribs, cornbread, green beans and rice casserole. My kids stood on boxes at the counter, and helped me cook…and we made new memories over the scars of the old.
It made me think of my great-grandmother, Big Momma, who worked as a sharecropper since she was a small child, working the plantations our ancestors tended for generations. All her life, Big Momma went from place to place, never having a real home. Despite the challenges, Big Momma managed to buy a real house in the city, keeping her children out of the fields and getting them into school. I went from place to place too. Now I had a real home, and was giving my children a better life. And now my children were sharing a meal that had come from her table, it was amazing.
The program also provided what we needed most – support and understanding. We were assigned a family advocate who helped make a plan to rebuild our life. There were also regular family activities and holiday parties. It meant so much to be part of those activities because it made me feel human again, not just like I was struggling to survive. It was amazing to see my kids laugh again, to see them grow, and watch the healing begin.
After 18 months in the program my family finally secured permanent housing. I had grown much stronger and was now inspired to volunteer in my community. I wanted to give back because so much had been given to my family. I also began taking photography and writing poetry to give voice to victims of domestic violence, and those who had been homeless. To this day, my family visits the program, and helps to volunteer at events.
What has the program meant for my family? SO many things – but the most important thing I have learned is that every one of us has an incredible potential to make a positive difference in the life of someone else. And that gift of love that you offer can and will change a life.