Earlier this week, I left work around 8pm after a very long day. I walked down the sidewalk past the Women’s Shelter next door to my building. Sometimes there are women outside smoking cigarettes, talking on their cell phones, or arguing with each other in the street. Sometimes there are even police officers called to the shelter to break up some dispute the women are having among themselves. Not often, but I’ve seen it.
I used to think to myself, “why did they put the shelter here, on this street, where there are businesses and professional people walking around? Not a good look for any visitors to the area.”
As I approached the corner, a woman stopped me. She was probably in her 40’s, although life made her look much older. She was carrying a bag, had on a jacket (even though it was hot and humid outside), jeans and sneakers. She looked like she had on a few layers of clothing…like she was wearing everything she owned.
“Excuse me. Is there a women’s shelter around here?” she asked me.
I turned and pointed up the street, “Yes, right there…under the scaffolding, on the left hand side of the street.” She looks and pauses…she doesn’t move.
“Do you ever see women fighting there? Is it safe?”
I was surprised by her question, because she asked as if she’d been in unsafe shelters before.
I told her it seemed okay to me, and that even though I’d seen police there before, it was a safe area and the women seemed nice. She searched my eyes for something more…and then hers welled up with tears.
“I left my husband. He beats me.”
I think I stopped breathing for a few seconds. My heart broke in a million little pieces as a tear rolled down her cheek. Without even thinking, I hugged her, and she hugged me back.
And then I had to check myself. Here I am wondering why they put a women’s shelter on this busy, “business-district” street in Midtown, when I should be grateful that the shelter even exists. Any of the “professional women” I see walking around on a daily basis could be in a domestic violence situation and easily end up in a shelter one day if we’re not careful. Maybe even me.
Of course, we’d like to think that could never happen to us. I can’t even imagine myself as the type of woman who would allow a man to abuse her. But I’m sure the many women who are abused each year never thought it could happen to them either. Domestic violence transcends all race and class boundaries. While I do believe that there are some serious emotional and self esteem issues plaguing women who find themselves in abusive relationships, anyone can find themselves in the wrong relationship where they didn’t see the abuse coming – both men and women.
After I hugged her, she thanked me and reluctantly headed up the street towards the shelter. I stood watching her for a moment, thinking how brave she is to leave and how afraid she must be doing it. So many times we ask ourselves why women who are victims of domestic violence don’t “just leave.” But sometimes, they simply don’t have any place to go – and if they do, the place they’re going to might not be any safer. I can’t imagine leaving one hell, just to end up in another one. At least the hell they know at home is familiar to them…unlike the unknown of a shelter in Midtown.
I said some extra prayers for her that night. I hope she got a good night’s rest and had some peace of mind. I even asked God to forgive me for having the thoughts I did about the shelter in the first place. Maybe if my grandmother would have had somewhere to go and the means to do so, she would have left my grandfather long before she passed away at the age of 42. Maybe she would have lived longer instead of suffering in an abusive marriage that probably led to her diminishing health. Maybe I would have gotten a chance to meet her.
The woman I met that night took a stand and finally decided to leave her abuser. I know, we think that women should be that brave. But women who are financially dependent on their husbands, who have children, who are afraid, who are intimidated, and who are isolated from friends and family may not find “leaving” so easy to do.
Yes, women in abusive relationships play a key role in improving their own situations. No one can leave for them. However, in most cases, they can’t do it alone either. They need support and resources, which are still grossly inadequate in many cities and states. Most cities are required to have more animal shelters than shelters for abused women and children. Does that make sense? Don’t get me wrong, I’m an animal lover…but seriously?
Given that reality, I think the question we should be asking instead of “why don’t they just leave?’ should be “how did they manage to leave their abusers in the face of so many obstacles?” Maybe if the woman I hugged the other night stays at the shelter and I see her again, I’ll ask her.