Shelter Work: A reflection about feminism

I sometimes feel like confessing to others that you identify as a feminist is similar to confessing struggling with alcoholism. I imagine myself at a meeting, speaking with people in specific circles or spaces and saying, “hi, I’m Jess and I’m a feminist” and others in the group responding, “hi jess!” as people often do during movie scenes of AA groups.

But identifying as a feminist is often way broader and way bigger than telling people you are one, especially if you work in spaces labeled as feminist. Feminism, over time, has changed but the stigma and violence feminists face for their experiences, values, actions, has not. And we live, today, in an era of really horrifying digital violence towards anyone identifying as feminist, promoting women’s empowerment and choice, and sharing their experiences as women or trans women. And unfortunately, while many of the spaces I work in, are labeled as feminist, the values of the organization do not empower me as a young feminist working within and outside of them. I’d like to share some of these experiences and challenges of making an income via working towards making change.

I work full time at a shelter for women and children, and also part time at a hospital organization. In both of these roles, I’m a young staff, I’m only 23. However, the roles I have are really important and I’m given quite a lot of responsibility for being so young. I’m going to chat more in this reflection about the shelter work, because it’s the role I internally struggle with most. In my role at the shelter, I do case management which means that I support women and children accessing our services in achieving their goals – whatever that means for them. For some women, it might be housing, counseling, education, addiction treatment, for others it might be confidence building, decision making, parenting skills, safety. Working in a residential environment means I am responsible, during an 8 -12 hour shift, for the wellbeing and safety of between 20 and 55 individuals.  If we include 10-15 non-residential clients I might interact with on a given day, this number increases to 70, which is significant. Thankfully I am almost always with another staff member, and we work as a team.

Before I explain the challenges, I want acknowledge the things I love about my work. I help women flee really scary, traumatic, life and death situations with abusive partners or families. I support families experiencing or impacted by mental health concerns, addiction and substance use, armed conflict and sex work. I am a first point of contact for women who are often chronically homeless and have been street involved for years. I facilitate connections to really necessary services and provide meals and transportation and a warm, really lovely space. I go with women to the hospital, police station, court, doctor, school, and grocery store. Beyond these critical actions, I am able to find meaning in relationships with complete strangers. I receive hugs from women I have not said a word to. I hold two day old babies. I engage in real talk – the scary, weird, difficult, uncomfortable, fun, important, interesting and hilarious conversations about STIs, sex, pregnancy, poop, illness, birth control, abuse, anxiety and so many other topics.

I get to make money to support myself doing things I feel connected to, inspired by, and love. Which sounded amazing before, what I have termed, “shit popped off”. When shit pops off in the shelter, there is literally not time for the basic necessities human beings need, like peeing, eating, and washing your hands (not necessarily in that order because you should always wash your hands after you pee). However, the reality of crisis and trauma-based residential environments, means you are consistently living outside of your own body, and expected to put the needs of others before your own. Management at the organization I work for verbally promotes self care, and taking breaks, and being honest about your limitations. And yet, when shit pops off, these ideas of rainbows and butterflies that are self care activities like peeing and eating, fly out of the proverbial window (because our office doesn’t even have a window to get any non-recycled air). Unfortunately, this means people get sick and need time off, which is also a process at the shelter that is not feminist. If someone calls in sick, even if you’ve already done an 8 hour shift, you have to stay to cover part or all of the next shift. Regardless of what you have going on, if you are not well, or if you just don’t want to, you have to stay. So there goes your self care, and your social life.

There are limitations in the organization I work for, and the idea that “you can always achieve your dreams, no matter who you are”, is straight up false.

Feminist competition is a real thing and the shelter is a great example of a space that breeds competitiveness between feminists.

I’m currently the youngest person to be employed here from a pool of approx. 50-60 staff, although that could change with the realities of staff turnover due to stress and burn out. While management seems to treat every frontline staff like dirt most of the time, because I’m so young, combined with my way of doing things, and personality, I get a lot of shit from management and other staff. I am ambitious and when I see where things could be better, more supportive, or more efficient, I highlight concerns and suggestions. However, these concerns are often met with resistance, simply because they come from front line staff. And not respectful resistance.

I sit on lots of committees and advisory spaces outside of this work, through other roles in the community, and am consistently questioned and challenged by my managers who also sit in these committees like when they ask “you’re not here in your role at the shelter, are you?”. Seriously, heaven forbid we have a young ambitious woman at the table who knows the realities of this organization so they can’t lie about how things really are going to impress the other shelters or services.

I work with some staff members who are older than I am who like to point out that “you’re soooooooo young though”, or “maybe you should talk to (client) because she’s your age”,  or “you’re too directive for someone so young”, or “I’ve been working in this area longer so I think we should do this”. Which frankly, is BS because the people making these comments are oppressive, not supportive and super judgey of our clients.

All of this, combined with “but she has to go home and care for her children and since you don’t have any, you have to stay to provide coverage”,  and “you’re young, you’ll bounce back from feeling burnt out” means that every day, I want to be in this environment less and less. Despite the amazing relationships I build daily, weekly, monthly, with both clients and supportive staff members, and despite the fact that I get to assist and support women by having real conversations free of judgment in a space of safety, this work is hard, and being a young woman doing it, is hard.

It’s hard to constantly be told you’re too young or not experienced or don’t have children so you couldn’t possibly understand being a parent or you’ll bounce back from feeling anxious and burnt out. It’s hard being of child bearing age and having other staff tell me one day I’ll have kids, regardless of me stating I don’t think I want to. It’s hard that how the shift rotations I work impact my dog are not considered as important as how shift work impacts children. It’s hard being told I’m too directive. It’s hard watching young women my age live in the shelter while I work in one. It’s hard working within the expectation that because you are personally connected to or compelled to do this work, it shouldn’t ever be about the money, but about the important work you do. It’s hard being told that mental health days don’t count as sick time. It’s hard living with the reality that self care doesn’t matter even though we work in trauma. It’s hard that my experience of sexual assault is not validated and that I can actually be fired for disclosing it to a client, even if its helpful to her. It’s hard that if I want to leave the organization, I will not be provided an adequate reference.

So while I get to make an income, doing work I love and feel connected to, and that is necessary for making change in the world and people’s lives, it sometimes isn’t enough. The money isn’t enough for the expenses I have, and is not reflective of the work done in this role. And yet you can’t raise concerns about the wage because then you’re not a good feminist, or a real advocate for women. So I go back to my discussion earlier about feminism and working in feminist spaces and to conclude, being a young feminist in an organization labeled as feminist but actually isn’t, and making an income in this space, is hard and means you often have to make compromises on self care for money, or happiness for yourself vs. others, or shifts for straight days. It’s exhausting. And the only thing that keeps me there, is those moments. The moments I can have real talk about anything with clients. The moments I see people achieve goals, and gain confidence, and heal. The moments I am invited to be part of women’s families and dinners and life events. These moments, are the reasons I stay. But there are lots of reasons to leave too, and it’s important to keep those in close consideration.
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