So a woman who runs a homeless shelter in Tallahassee called City Walk was getting some reports from the needy who would come in to her shelter that the homeless were bring abused at another shelter called, The Shelter. She was reasonably skeptical at first but there was enough consistency in people’s stories from enough independent sources that she decided to check it out.
So I decide to go undercover and see for myself what was it like for a women to check herself into the Tallahassee Shelter.
Since many of the staff has seen me around there giving out blankets and Bibles, I knew I had to disguise myself. I put on an auburn wig that made my hair shorter and a baseball cap.
Sunday night, as I entered the area to check-in, an older black woman entered right behind me. The male staff member behind the counter yelled at the woman, “You’re late for check-in, you have to sleep outside tonight!” The woman walked out. I wondered why he let me in as she walked in right behind me.
He asked me if I had been there before. I told him no. He asked for my name. I made one up. He asked me for my phone number. I thought that was odd so I made one up. He told me to wait outside.
I went out with the other ladies and children and a few minutes later he came out. He told me that the phone number I gave him did not work.
I told him it was dead and I needed to charge it.
He said, “Okay, well here is my number. Call me and we can hook up later tonight.”
I was infuriated but did not want to break my cover.
I answered, “Nah, man, I just need some food and some sleep.”
"You don’t want to sleep in there. It’s dangerous. You can come sleep at my place. We can stop at McDonald’s."
Seriously, a staff member - a person with some authority - was propositioning me - no, better yet, PREYING on a woman he KNOWS is in a vulnerable situation. A woman comes to The Shelter to escape the insecurity of the streets, not to be thrown to the wolves. Now I know why he let me stay and kicked the older woman out.
I wanted to stall him so I asked for a drink of water. He came back with his own half-drank bottled water for me.
He propositioned me again. He said, “It’s not safe in there for women. You are better off coming home with me. I get off at 11:45. Just meet me in that parking lot over there.”
I wanted him to leave me alone so I told him I would go with him later.
He asked me to be discreet and don’t tell anyone I was going.
Inside, as I was waiting for a bed number a different staff member needed to get to the dryer. As he passed me, he shoved me out of the way and I fell to the floor.
The man came back to remind me I was leaving with him at 11:45 and to be discreet.
I noticed a woman playing solitaire on her bed. I asked if she wanted to play a card game. She told me that they would get kicked out if they were caught playing cards with others.
The looks on the faces of the women were despondent. I felt depressed and I knew I could leave at any time and go home. These women and children had no where else to go.
Dinner was half an hour late as we got herded outside like cattle into what I call “The Cage.” The Cage is a chainlink fenced-in area adjacent to the building. There is only one way in or out, and that door could only be opened from the inside of the building.
As the women were told to come back in, the staff member that kept asking me for sex told me to “Wait here.” In. The. Cage…Alone.
My mind was racing. I’m never scared in Frenchtown. I’m around prostitutes, addicts, dealers, and mentally ill people all the time and NEVER scared. I never think twice. I’m usually armed with a Bible and known for preaching but tonight I’m just a homeless person. How could I explain to my husband that I was raped tonight at The Shelter. I immediately put my foot in the door just before he shut it.
"You’re still leaving with me, right?"
"You didn’t tell anyone, right?"
I said no.
I decided I the stories I had been hearing are true. I experienced the abuse first hand. I had two babies and a husband at home and it was late and I better get going.
But to sign out, I had to get past the solicitor. I got scared.
I went into the bathroom and called the police. I told them what I was doing and to ask for my fake name and have me come outside.
They arrived and the guy wanted to come with me to talk to the police. I told the police I wanted to talk to them alone.
We went outside and I told them the story. They informed me there was no crime. A staff member can solicit a guest for sex if they want to. They agreed it was unethical, inappropriate and just plain wrong, but there was nothing they could do. So they gave me a ride back to my car.
As I was inside, I was able to talk to many of the women that stayed there, some with children.
I found out some pretty disheartening stories. I found out that in order to get your laundry done, you had to perform sexual favors to the staff or you would get put at the end of the list.
I found out that “the rules” depended on who was working at that time and it is common to be yelled at and berated right in front of your own children. Nicknames given to guest by staff are things like “Fat Ass” and “Heifer.”
If a woman decides to stick up for herself she is threatened with a call to DCF to have her children taken away. If she further complains, she is threatened with being banned from The Shelter, then a call to DCF because she has her children sleeping in the street. She just has to sit there and take the insults and cursewords as they are spewed out at her.
One women told me, ““He knows we’re powerless here and he can treat us however he wants. I can’t go to anyone because I don’t want to risk having nowhere to go and losing my kids.”
A lot of the guys told me they choose to sleep outside because there is a Bed Bug infestation in The Shelter. At first I did not truly believe it, but everyday, our volunteers and their kids show up with bites all over them.
One told me, “We just learn to live with it. It’s better than having your kids sleep outside.”
Theres more on the link. As the woman, Renee Miller, reminded us, we are called to, “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)