Women With Children: the new majority at Houston shelters/CHH

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Fri, 8 May 1998 20:14:15 -0700 (PDT)


http://www.chron.com/cgi-bin/auth/story.mpl/content/chronicle/metropolitan/98/05
/07/shelterfolo.html
FWD  5/6/1998  Houston Chronicle


  SHADOWS OF LIFE IN A SHELTER

  CENSUS FINDS 51% OCCUPY HOUSING
                                       
  By Claudia Kolker


"Kitty" scrambled out a window with her daughter at 3 a.m., then caught a
bus from her rural town to work in the city.

"Susan" now has a fast-food restaurant job, but still thinks she may go
back to the twisted security of her abusive husband.

Aide (her real name) decided to support herself and her daughter when her
ex-convict husband wouldn't clean up his act.

All three are part of the new majority of local shelter occupants: women
with children.

A new census by the Coalition for the Homeless for Houston/Harris County
shows that for the first time, women and children edge out men in local
shelters, making up 51 percent of their population in 1998.

Strengthening incrementally year by year, it's a national trend, advocates
say. Scarce affordable housing and persistent poverty help drive
homelessness across the board. Substance abuse -- among women and men --
also underlies many homeless lives.

But abusive relationships are the most common reason women flee one home
without another to go to, shelter occupants and local shelter workers say.

And if those unhappy families are all the same in many ways, the women in
some of Houston's shelters also describe a range of circumstances that
pushed them to emergency lodging.

"It's more convenient. It's easier to stay in an abusive relationship,"
"Susan", a 23-year-old sheltered mother, says bluntly. Like many others,
she asked not to give her real name and location.

"It would be so much easier to go home," she says. "I have transportation
there, I have money there. I don't have to worry. Now, when my kids need
shoes, how am I going to buy them shoes?

But the price for life at home was high: beatings and incessant verbal
abuse, fleeing to her family, then always going back to her husband. Like
many female shelter occupants, Susan says she called the shelter only when
all other options were cut off.

"I would always go to my mom," she says. "Finally one day she said that was
it. I had nowhere else to go."

With two children, a girl 2 and a boy 4, Susan can't say she won't go back
to her husband, either.

While her kids suffered watching her chaotic household, she is also torn
seeing them in the austere, dormitory-like shelter.

"They were exposed to what was going on with my husband ... they were very
moody," she says "The little one was always sad and upset. (But) the older
one, he can take a lot more, so as long as he was watching TV, he liked
being with his dad."

Now, the boy begs her constantly to take him home.

"It's not an easy place to live," she says of the shelter. "When we go out
of the shelter, my son doesn't want to come back."

For 43-year-old "Kitty," by the time she left home, there was no ambivalence.

She is hiding from her mate of nine years, a man who slapped her on their
first date and whose violence escalated.

When he heaved their 9-year-old daughter in the air and shook her because
she couldn't decide which shoes to buy, Kitty began to rethink her crusade
to "help him."

By then, he was locking his wife and daughter in their rural house far
outside Houston. But one night, Kitty and her daughter crawled out a window
and headed to the bus station.

"There's no going back," Kitty says. The shelter has provided a bit of calm
as she hunts for work.

"We were both nervous when we got here," Kitty says. "Now she's gained
about five pounds, because she is beginning to eat more, be more relaxed,
more trustful."

Aide, 29, a Mexican immigrant, landed in the shelter with her three
children when she realized she didn't want to go on living with her
husband, who was soon to be released from jail after a one-year sentence.

"He was a coyote, a smuggler of immigrants," says Aide. "It's a
relationship like all of us (women) here had, more or less the same --
there was emotional and physical mistreatment.

Aide was living with friends when her husband got out of jail.

"My eyes opened up. I didn't want this life," she says. "I told him many
times to change what he was doing -- he knew what was going to happen. He
knew he was going to make us suffer.

Because he is so violent, Aide is in hiding here. She is delighted with the
shelter's help.

"We've suffered a lot," she says. "When someone opens a door with so much
care and support, the children feel it."

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