D.C. women’s shelters provide for those in need

In the United States, a rape occurs every five minutes; every nine seconds a woman is physically abused; and nearly 500,000 women are homeless. Although efforts have been made to curb these numbers, they remain extraordinarily high nationwide, both within major urban centers and in rural towns.

By age 18, nearly one out of every four women is the victim of sexual assault; 14 percent of the homeless population in the United States are single women, while families are an additional 41 percent. And 7.9 percent of all women are physically abused by their partners, while verbal and emotional abuse affects an additional 37 percent, according to research provided by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

In D.C., a number of places cater specifically to women in need, and other places, such as the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, offer services for women and men.

Sexual abuse, homelessness and physical abuse may seem to be relatively unrelated, but surveys have shown that nearly 50 percent of all women who have been designated homeless are the victims of battery or physical abuse. Rachel’s Women’s Shelter in northwest Washington provides outreach programs designed to help both homeless men and women in D.C., but it also provides daytime programs specifically designed for women.

“Most of the people who come here have experienced sexual assault, abuse and/or domestic violence at some point in their lives,” said Alexandra George, the shelter’s program director.

Rachel’s Women’s Shelter provides counseling to help its residents learn to cope with what they’ve gone through.

“Our goal is to develop a relationship with each individual,” George stressed. “We want them to feel like people and not numbers.”

Rachel’s Women’s Shelter, at 1222 11th St. N.W., has 22 housing units available to help create a sense of community. Each woman receives her own room and shares common spaces such as the living and dining rooms.

“We try to provide as much of a home-like environment as possible,” George said. “Everyone knows everyone else’s name.”

Women who face physical and sexual abuse frequently must choose between the abuse and homelessness. Forty-six percent of cities nationwide have identified domestic abuse as one of the primary causes of homelessness. House of Ruth, which has two confidential addresses to house women fleeing from abusive situations, opens its doors to women of all backgrounds and economic situations, but most of its population is local and usually poor.

House of Ruth has a 24-hour staff at both locations to provide crisis intervention, therapy, psychiatric services and teaching groups. The organization also has a 24-hour hotline for any woman who requires immediate help. Frequently, women flee with their children, and the center has volunteer programs to help both the mothers and the children cope with their situation.

While the vast majority of its residents are poor, the center’s counseling services are utilized by a wide variety of local women from all social and economic backgrounds.

“Our counseling center receives a wider range of visitors,” said Christel Nichols, House of Ruth’s president. “It’s used by those who still need to work on the domestic violence issue but may not need our housing services.”

The D.C. Rape Crisis Center, in contrast, works solely with men and women who need to overcome sexual abuse. In October 2000, the Crisis Center partnered with Howard University Hospital, the Metropolitan Police Department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to launch Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner.

SANE provides specially trained nurses to meet rape survivors at the hospital to conduct a forensic medical exam. Nurses are on-call 24 hours a day.

But its most widely used service – the 24-hour crisis hotline – is designed to give victims and others affected by sexual assault someone to talk to. In addition, it provides free and confidential counseling to the public on the individual, couple and group levels.

Right now the Crisis Center is in the process of preparing for a variety of new activities designed to heighten the community’s understanding of sexual abuse. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and the Crisis Center is planning to host a number of workshops throughout the community, including in primary schools and homeless shelters.

“We want people to be educated and aware of sexual violence,” said Claudia Zaborsky, the Crisis Center’s volunteer crisis services coordinator.

One of the largest events is Take Back the Night, which is currently scheduled for the end of March and is co-sponsored by the GW chapter of the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance.

“It’s a time to make people aware through speakers, music and poetry,” Zaborsky said. “We meet in a central location and listen to speakers and music and hear poetry designed to bring sexual assault into the limelight.”

Nearly all of the homeless shelters and battered women’s shelters in D.C. accept monetary donations, and Rachel’s Women’s Shelter, among others, accepts donations of cosmetics and toiletries. Also, because the organizations are nonprofit, they rely heavily on the services of volunteers. The Crisis Center, for example, requires many volunteers to staff its hotline, as does House of Ruth. Depending on the organization, commitment can either be long-term or short-term.

“Right now we’re making a push to recruit more volunteers,” George said. She went on to express a sentiment that is shared by the coordinators of shelters citywide: “We can always use more.”

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