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Panelists discuss women experiencing homelessness, violence

| Friday, April 13, 2018

Four South Bend experts who specialize in working with women and children experiencing homelessness and domestic violence spoke Thursday at Saint Mary’s to clear up misconceptions of homelessness and shed light on ways others can support the homeless population in South Bend.

The panel, entitled “Finding Peace: Empowering Women and Children Experiencing Homelessness,” included Ebony Haynes, the assistant director of guest services at St. Margaret’s House in downtown South Bend; Suzanna Fritzberg, the deputy chief of staff to South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Jessica Richmond, the assistant director of The Family Justice Center of St. Joseph County; and Peter Lombardo, the director for community involvement for The Center for the Homeless in South Bend.

Ann Curtis

Jessica Richmond, the assistant director of The Family Justice Center of St. Joseph County, speaks on Saint Mary’s panel “Finding Peace: Empowering Women and Children Experiencing Homelessness” on helping women and children experiencing homelessness and violence.

Fritzberg said many services and some policy focusing on homelessness in South Bend seem to be aimed at men, which is problematic as it ostracizes a large population of the homeless who are women and children.  

“In my work in the city over the past few years, it’s certainly been clear that many of our services are catered towards men, based on either data or based on data and a mix of assumptions that men are the ones who need those services,” she said. “I think too often when we think of [homelessness] as a genderless problem, it ends up being a male problem because we use men as the norm in the way that we design a lot of things.”

Haynes said St. Margaret’s House tries to combat this focus on men who are experiencing homelessness by attempting to satisfy the specific needs of women and children in the community.

“A place like St. Margaret’s House is important because a lot of times when programs are developed, they are not developed with the needs of women in mind,” she said. “Women and children have very specific needs, and what is very unique about St. Margaret’s House is that we are a safe place for women and children.”

A misconception about homeless centers is that they simply exist to feed and shelter people, Haynes said, but this is not the case for St. Margaret’s House.

“We have had the opportunity to help women on a holistic scale,” she said. “We have a portion of our guests who come just for the sense of community. They come because they need counseling or because they are looking for employment or need to know how to make a plan for their life. A portion of what we do is to help supplement some of the income and needs of the women who come in.”

Women who are experiencing homelessness are often dealing with the aftermath of domestic violence and abuse, Richmond said.

“One in four women in the U.S. are homeless and are survivors of domestic violence,” she said. “The new statistics are showing that one in three women are going to experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime. So if we’re thinking about that in terms of homelessness, there are so many aggravating factors that cause survivors to deepen their homelessness journey.”

Richmond said The Center for Family Justice helps survivors of abuse navigate the economic and safety concerns that accompany homelessness.   

“A lot of our survivors are dealing with not only the physical [factors] but the economics, and when I say economics I mean maybe they don’t have access to the debit card or the bank accounts or they have terrible credit,” she said. “We have to find her a safe space to stay, with or without children, and most of the time we have to think about the fact that there’s often a stalking component that comes along with domestic violence — so how are we going to find affordable housing that’s going to keep her safe that isn’t going to have a landlord that is going to threaten to evict her if she has to call the police to protect her and her children?”

Many children in the South Bend community also experience homelessness and the stress and violence that accompany it, Lombardo said.

“Probably a third of homeless kids have seen a stabbing, a rape, a murder,” he said. “Probably a third have been a victim of domestic abuse or violence. They’ve moved probably 16 times more than the average family. Every time they move, they probably have to change schools, and changing schools means a period of adjustment. … So think about a kid in school, maybe on the verge of homelessness, maybe on the verge of just moving from an apartment to grandma’s house, do you think that kid is worried about spelling in school? No. He’s worried about where he’s going to sleep that night.”

While the population of homeless people in South Bend has “actually decreased slightly since 2011,” Fritzberg said, the stigma behind homelessness is still pervasive.

“Where people are staying, particularly unsheltered people, has shifted within the city to be in more visible areas, and that has a provided really a more profound opportunity for businesses and agencies to recommit to this problem and take seriously the needs of a group of vulnerable people,” she said.

Lombardo said students can help the homeless community by donating their time to tutoring homeless youth or by simply listening to those experiencing homelessness.

“Sit and talk with the people you are serving and listen to them because, unfortunately, they don’t get listened to very much,” she said. “But if you’re there, listening, you’ve given them that dignity and that respect, and that’s what will help them move on to self sufficiency.”

Listening to those in need helps to individualize and humanize those experiencing homelessness, Haynes said.

“The bottom line is the golden rule: treat people how you want to be treated,” she said. “These are women. They are survivors and have been through a lot in life, so I talk to them the way I talk to anybody else.”

Richmond said those looking to serve women and children who are experiencing homelessness should not do so by offering them a handout.

“When you walk into the center, there’s a sign that says, ‘You are braver than you think,’ because when you walk into the Family Justice Center, for a lot of women, that is the bravest moment of her entire life,” she said. “I always tell our staff, it’s a hand-up, not a handout. The women who come into the center aren’t looking for a handout, they don’t really need anything except an ear to listen and somebody to continue to believe them at face value, because a lot of the time the system is up against them. We learn to know them as people. They’re no less than me, no less than anyone sitting at this table. We’re all people and we all just need each other, and that’s something beautiful about the community of South Bend and about the social service agencies within South Bend.”

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