Five years in a shelter?

Over at New Advent, I found a story from CBS news that I think was meant to be an amusing sort of “feel good” story:

Manhattan Soup Kitchen Serves Caviar; Anonymous Donor Gives 150 NYC Needy a Taste of Luxury Life

There was something special on the menu at a New York soup kitchen Thursday.

Those eating lunch at the Broadway Community Inc. facility in Manhattan got a taste of the luxury life, thanks to a gift of caviar from an anonymous donor.

The caviar was served along with sour cream and egg whites and yolks and chives on cornmeal blinis. About 150 people showed up for lunch.
Diana Conyers, who received a meal at the soup kitchen, said, “I thought it would taste ‘yuck’ because I never had caviar. It was surprising, it tasted pretty good.”

Michelle Seliem and her 8-year-old daughter — who have been living in a domestic violence shelter for five years — loved it.

Seliem said,”It was delicious.”

But what did it taste like?

“Fish,” she said, laughing.

Though the $1,100 value of the caviar could have covered more meals for the needy, it was the experience that was priceless.

Hosna Seliem told Wallace, “I felt like a princess.”

Now, it certainly is a “feel good” story, and I’m glad to read that the down-on-their-luck folks being served felt a little special and uplifted by getting a taste of the glam. But I was struck the idea that a woman could be living at a domestic violence shelter for five years -that her 3-year-old daughter became her 8-year-old daughter while living in what is supposed to be a temporary support measure.

We certainly don’t want children spending five years in a violent and unsafe domicile. But do we want them to be spending five years in a shelter, and thinking of it as “home?” It seems wrong, to me. It seems like something that cheats the child, and the mother.

I wonder if anyone at CBS will look into how many women and children are seeking shelter from domestic violence, but never escaping the “temporary” safety of a shelter, or if they even think of it as odd, at all.

I know the Sisters of Life and the Good Counsel Homes help women and their children by giving them housing and support as the women take steps to become self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency should be the goal, shouldn’t it? Doesn’t that honor the dignity of the human being?

I haven’t slept yet, and I’m too bushed to think, but I will have to think about this when my mind is fresh. Am I wrong to be bothered by that casual acceptance of a mother and her daughter spending five years in a shelter? And isn’t this something that feminists -particularly the elite feminists in the media- should be examining? Shouldn’t the feminist organizations be looking into new, constructive uses for their energy and their money, besides the endless political campaigns and the endless abortion rage?

Yesterday we talked about finding ways to keep DC school voucher recipients in their chosen schools, now that the president and his party have done their worst. Looks like this is going to be the year of finding private and communal ways to help people who are not being optimally served by the big (and big-spending) government.

Perhaps 2010 will be the year of the Social Entrepreneur.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • RandyB

    “Perhaps 2010 will be the year of the Social Entrepreneur.”

    I certainly hope so; 2010 and beyond.

    If every happily married couple opened their home to one single mother, there would be no homeless or struggling single mothers.

  • Paula R. Robinson M.D.

    Obviously the Lord wants women and their young children to be self sufficient, which is why when Scripture talks about supporting widows and orphans it is speaking of emotional and motivational support. More tithes to support counseling and jobs programs for widows and orphans!

  • Ryan Haber


    I’ve known personally and worked in a social service setting with several people whose lives might be described as edgy. You are certainly correct that there is room in happily married Christian households for those single mothers who otherwise would be indigent. The difficulty is that they often lack not merely life skills like saving money and balancing a checkbook, but typically have short- or long-term emotional issues that make even learning those skills very difficult. It is no coincidence that abused women, when they finally get the resolve to break off from their abuser, very often find another to remind them how worthless they think they are; nor that abusive men continually find one woman after another upon whom they can act out their rage.

    The typical happily married Christian couple simply hasn’t the emotional resources to help provide a stable environment, clear boundaries, and steady guidance to such people – and such people often haven’t the conviction of their need to change to accept those things when offered.

    I am not brushing off your idea. Especially as a temporary measure, it might be very good.


    If you are wrong to be disturbed by five years’ in a shelter, then nobody is right about anything. Modern social service systems make their livelihood on poor peoples’ problems and wealthier peoples’ sympathies. They have at least some personal incentive to sustain, rather than end, both of those conditions. The Church – especially religious communities – does well at providing social services when we can do so on a voluntary basis. Even the hulking Catholic Charities establishment is tremendously volunteer-driven.

  • LordJiggy

    My dear Anchoress, if the “the elite feminists in the media” could be bothered to examine this issue, all that would result is that they would find a way to blame Conservatives, Republicans, and Men, probably in that order.

  • Bill

    When I worked for human services, we referred to some clients as “lifers.” They are forever on assistance. They might work a job for a few weeks for months and then quit. Some have health or emotional issues. Many have little education. Some just needed to be more “strongly encouraged” to work. Time limits on federal cash assistance (TANF, formerly ADC) were passed in the late 1990s. In most states, clients can receive lifetime cash assistance for five years or less. This applies across state lines. Some states have limits of as little as two years. There is no limit for Food Stamps or Medicaid.

  • beethovenqueen

    First off, Happy New Year, Anchoress, and thanks for bringing up these very important issues: homelessness, women’s shelters and all the stuff that goes with them.

    Some women stay for extended periods (years) in what is termed as “transitional housing” when they’re being threatened by a man in the picture (boyfriend, divorced or soon-to-be divorced control freak). Staying in that type of housing affords the best protection for the woman and her children. Oftentimes women can stay there and keep their identities hidden (i.e. no name on a mailbox, no name affiliated with the address). The woman you mentioned is lucky to have a daughter, because most shelters will not house boys over a certain age (14, might be even younger at some places).

    I had a friend who was divorcing her threatening, control freak husband and was admitted NOWHERE ā€“ not even to a shelter for 3 days let alone longer ā€“ because she had 2 sons over 14. Her 3rd son was quite young with Downsyndrome. This is a serious problem that many women face and believe me (I was doing the calling for her), there is nowhere to turn, even in big cities.

    Yes, self-sufficiency is the goal, but violent, stalking men allow women little room to stand on their own.

  • beethovenqueen

    PS – if anyone has a little cash or time to spare this year, please do think of women’s shelters.

  • Nzie

    I used to work for a domestic violence shelter, which responsibilities included monitoring and assisting clients as well as answering a statewide helpline to find shelter for other victims. I can tell you that shelters generally are all about self-sufficiency, and that they also work very hard on a limited budget (so they often can’t afford to put people up indefinitely). There are a couple possibilities I thought of when reading that part:

    1. She’s a repeat client. That is, she may have been in and out (mostly in) for five years. Most domestic violence victims leave and return many times before leaving for good.

    2. The program really is that lenient and, basically, unhelpful (self-sufficiency is what DV victims need– they’ve often been so dominated by their abusers they don’t know who they are without the person).

    3. The program runs an assisted housing thing. Maybe she has low-cost housing through them, like one shelter I contacted seemed to have. So it may be a small apartment with shared kitchens or something that she can get low cost while getting education and saving up for a regular place, like a halfway house almost.

    4. It may be a rare long-term shelter which has the ability to work through her issues with her as a live-in, or her support system may just be that weak wherein she really has needed shelter that long. She probably still works a job and is saving or getting education.

    Only one of those situations is truly problematic in my view– so she could legitimately have spent 5 years in a shelter. Shelters are generally really good about promoting self-sufficiency.

    What a nice story- sometimes something like that does more than a normal meal.


  • Nzie

    Beethovenqueen’s spot on about older boys in shelters. They are often refused because it can become a risk for other children, but it can also make them the target of some very hurt women who need to recover so they can have healthy relationships with men. There are some shelters that specialise in transitional housing, however, which are often able to accomodate older sons, and sometimes a small shelter can make an exception here or there, situation dependent.

  • dymphna

    “If every happily married couple opened their home to one single mother” there would be a heck of a lot of divorces.

  • David

    Whew! I have retired from years of trying to help the near hopeless. Be it addiction, zero esteem, amorality, or near imbecility, I have come to the conclusion that many people need the security of “life camps” where they are fed, housed, guided and protected from themselves and others.

    Sometimes they snap out of it, but often as not, they find trouble. Their children do not have to be lost to society. But the parents, for all their protestations and seeming concern will lean on the kids as a reason to lie, cheat and steal.

    Time and again, the private charities which step in and get results are very frank and honest about who and what they are dealing with and quick to triage their cases.

    Public welfare is little more than an impersonal methadone source staffed in large part by people who are barely more responsible than their case loads. The really fine case workers burn out or go for administrative gold.

  • RandyB

    @dymphna – Why?


    Such households would be a far healthier home than single mothers facing such challenges typically currently have, and the help they need would be of greater effectiveness.

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  • Ryan Haber

    Dr. Robinson,

    You wrote, somewhat tongue in cheek, “…when Scripture talks about supporting widows and orphans it is speaking of emotional and motivational support. More tithes to support counseling and jobs programs for widows and orphans!”

    But things were different in some fundamental ways, then. As a woman with degrees you must be aware that there are more opportunities for women to make honest livings now than there were ca. 2000 BC until the time of the apostles – that is, the time frame in which the whole of the Bible was written.

    The support of widows and orphans was – and is – intended to keep them from falling into prostitution or debt slavery, since Israel was supposed to be a different sort of nation, and not let such things happen among its own people. Also, those widows had possible social roles they might serve, albeit without generating economic profit.

    Nowadays, modern social service programs of all stripes only questionably “save” women from prostitution while enabling them in a lifestyle that leads to generation after generation of hopelessness and despair.

    Of course we are to give generously to the poor. But most people today are not poor for lack of a man to care for them – although even today most people in poverty are women with children and no stable man in their life. Nobody is served, though, when adults are infantilized – that is not what the Scriptures ask of us, either.

  • Ryan Haber


    Perhaps often, but not necessarily, better. I am thinking of similar, though not identical situations that I have known.

    I know very well a well-meaning couple, somewhat religious and happy enough in their marriage. They adopted a teenage girl, a runaway from an abusive home. They received some basic training, but seeing as how their own two elementary-aged children were (and are) turning out very nicely, thought, “Hey, how hard can it be?” They did a very good job taking care of her, for their part, but were totally unequipped for the sort of manipulation and scheming that she constantly did in order to get what she wanted – I witnessed it myself. She even tried to frame her adoptive mother in an imaginary affair. It was at that point – she had since turned eighteen – that they told her she had to go. They miss her and feel blessed to have had her in their home for four years, but realized that they couldn’t do anything more for her, because even in their stable home she was too busy surviving (as she had all her life) to really relax, settle in, and open up. Simply being good role models and having a basically good set of family relationships wasn’t enough. Every gift was seen as a reward, every rule seen as an imposition, every responsibility an unbearable weight. She was not living like Cinderella – just expecting to do her part; she, meanwhile, showed decreasing interest in studying or working, and much preferred gifts or cash from boyfriends. With her always looking to get what she could before the gig was up because that was how she experienced the first fourteen years of her life, things could only go so well. In St. Augustine’s words, we bear our mortality around with us, and interior wounds heal slowly.

    I am not ruling out private, personal charity, but observing the fact that well-intentioned acts often end disastrously when people do not really know what they are getting themselves into. Of course, buoyed by a strong faith, prayer life, solid relationships and community life, and clear boundaries maintained with a firm, gentle hand – amazing things DO happen, too. No denying that. There are too many stories contrary to mine to think them impossible.

    I’m just saying that it is an ideal solution, but not practically-speaking a common one. At least, that’s what I was trying to say.

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  • retriever

    Good post and comments. The mental health and substance abuse issues especially important.

    That was a good point about women looking to a guy as their saviour tending to pick another abuser. Ties into the whole idea of assortative mating in psychology: not to blame the victim, but a vulnerable woman (psychologically) is more susceptible to the blandishments of a potential abuser.

    In addition, altho extremely stable and happy and structured households can sometimes turn around a troubled kid or sibling group (with God’s help), more often there is a “crazy-making” effect on the family, as they try good heartedly to help a kid who has had to do whatever it took to survive all their life. It doesn’t just stress the couple’s marriage but can damage the family’s biological children (who may be neglected, or preyed upon by troubled adoptees).

    I have no answers, off to post ineffectually about it in my own blog….:)

    And pray, unceasingly…

  • Andrew B

    Many years ago, the minister of my church was prevailed upon by his teenage daughter to take in a friend of her’s. The girl was from a troubled, unstable family, but blossomed in the household of the minister, his wife and their children.

    The girl is now grown, married, happy and has children of her own. My minister confided in me, however, that he could never do the same thing in this day and age. “Think about it– a clergyman taking in a young, pretty teenage girl. I would be ruined.”

    Sad, but true. A tremendously kind, giving gesture, but impossible in our day and age.

  • dymphna

    Bless your kind heart Randy, but I’ve observed over the years that many a woman has lost her husband to the cute young nanny, au pair or the friend who was just supposed to be staying until she got herself together.

  • beethovenqueen

    Nice to see that Randy B and Andrew B both see the potential in “replanting” persons in difficult situations in “less troubled soils”.

    Thanks Andrew B for that story. O/T: Your minister’s comment reminded me of a cowboy singer who told me he can’t allow little kids to sit on his lap or leg for the same reason.

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  • Bob Devine

    Those are a lot of well meaning comments but none address the problem. The jerks that beat women and children. It seems simple to me that they can not beat anyone if they are in jail. Not enough room for them? Build some more. And not easy time ones. Make it so they do not want to go back. Maybe a cheaper way to house the beaters would be to farm out the job of containing them during their sentence to the Mexicans I hear they have great jails and a dollar goes a long way there.

  • Micha Elyi

    I am distressed by how quickly some commenters here reverted to the feminist Men Are Evil script.

    Parking women in so-called domestic violence shelters is too often simply a social services agency dodge to get those women some long-term taxpayer-financed housing that isn’t logged against the official assisted housing budget. Feminists win because the practice artificially inflates their “victim” count and the agency creates another long-term client on the dole. Chances are high that a ‘Ms. Long-Term’ has a disfunctionality that includes abusing her man but that doesn’t fit the P.C. narrative so it’s rarely admitted.