A few weeks ago, we visited Mutual Ground, a shelter in Aurora for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, to talk to its staff about community partnership. We met with five members of the Mutual Ground staff, including the Executive Director, who gave us a tour of the facility.
This was my first visit to a domestic violence shelter. I wanted to know what services the organization provides and how it provides them, but I was unsure of what to expect. I found that in some ways, the organizational structure was very similar to that of Hesed House, and in others, quite different. As we were going through the meeting and the tour, my reactions were similar to how I had felt when touring Hesed House, but they were also more immediate. While taking the Hesed House tour, I had thought about what I would do if I was a single mother with two young children and suddenly became homeless, or if my husband and I became homeless with our children. But because it is hard for me to imagine myself in such a situation, I felt one step removed from the experience. By contrast, Mutual Ground had an immediate impact on me, because as a woman, this is a threat that always hovers in the background for me. It was not difficult for me to place myself in the situation of the women – or the men – walking into the shelter.
Many things surprised me and moved me beyond words at the meeting. To begin with, I had no idea that a shelter could provide so many resources. I do not know if Mutual Ground is a standard model in terms of what most shelters can provide, or if it is exceptionally well-equipped, but I was tremendously impressed to learn about its advocacy, volunteering, fund-raising, informational and support activities, and the services it provides for both sexes. For instance, I did not know that a shelter can send a legal advocate to support a domestic violence survivor when she/he appears in court. I did not know that a shelter can send speakers into schools and communities to educate children and the general population, and that such education is required in every grade in a school. I was astounded to learn that Mutual Ground staff members had conducted more than 1400 presentations at schools last year – an outstanding testament to the organization’s commitment to community advocacy and outreach. I did not know that the Executive Director of a shelter has to speak to the state’s General Assembly every year to fight to keep the shelter’s funding.
I found myself being surprised over and over again at how fearless, strong and realistic the women were, in terms of the services they provide, what they seek to achieve, and what they know they can achieve. There was an obvious bond of camaraderie, wisdom, strength and hopefulness about the group that undoubtedly exists in any organization such as Mutual Ground or Hesed House, and it provides an emotional and psychological support that such hard work surely requires, and that makes the work even more meaningful in my eyes. Over and over again, the matter-of-fact way in which the women talked about some issues and certain aspects of the tour were reminders to me of their daily battles. A woman who will return to her abuser repeatedly, the legal challenges to sole custody for a woman divorcing her violent partner, the two playrooms for children who have been sexually assaulted, the rooms filled with clothes and supplies so that the women feel at home and not devalued and dehumanized, the room on the first floor that was intended for women who cannot climb up to the second floor, sometimes because they have been beaten so badly, the police drop-offs at 2 a.m. – all these were stark realities.
At the same time, the fact that the women can only stay in the shelter for about 40 days but that most move out within two weeks was a clear indication that most of these women see themselves as survivors with lives that carry on despite the current trauma that they must overcome, particularly if their jobs and social networks remain in place and they can find a living space fairly quickly. Homeless persons, on the other hand, face a different set of challenges. If a homeless person does not have viable employment or someone willing to provide shelter, transitioning into a different mode of being is its own battle, and a homeless person may need more time to move out of a shelter than a survivor of domestic violence. Hence, Hesed House has a transitional living space for long-term residents, but Mutual Ground does not, which shed new light on these experiences for me. Both modes of being require tremendous resilience, courage and self-determination to conquer, but the challenges can be very different.
My own experiences with domestic violence and sexual assault make me deeply aware of the extreme shame that surrounds them, and the taboos that prevent an abused person from removing herself/himself from such a situation. There is a host of cultural, social, religious, financial, emotional, and psychological barriers to walking away from abuse. However, my visit to Mutual Ground demonstrated to me that if community members, and especially children, are educated about the nature of abuse, its immediate damage, its long-term impact, the irrelevance of many of the taboos, and the support system that exists for survivors – the information and support provided by an organization like Mutual Ground – it makes the process a little more bearable, and it can provide that last bit of strength one needs to walk away. I went through the tour thinking of how such information could be made ever more accessible to everyone, and how people could be made aware, truly aware, that it is okay and absolutely critical for them to talk about abuse and sexual assault and to find a safe space – because such spaces really do exist, created by places like Mutual Ground. For those who experience domestic violence and sexual assault, there really can be a “a shelter from the storm,” as Mutual Ground is described in its literature.
Sarmistha (Buri) Banerjee