Working in a homeless shelter in the Bronx, NY comes with its fair share of challenges. I love working at Siena House, a transitional housing shelter for young women who are pregnant or have a child under the age of three, but some days can be pretty discouraging. It’s difficult to watch these women try to navigate the homeless shelter system. They can easily fall through the cracks and become just another statistic. Sometimes it is their own doing, sometimes the system fails them, but in any case, it is hard to see day after day. Many of the women come from broken homes, abusive relationships, and other miserable circumstances. They have been failed in so many ways in their life already, so it’s difficult to watch them struggle for the seemingly standard things I have always had in mine – food, shelter, stability, and supportive friends and family. And what is most unfortunate is that in many ways, these women are their own worst enemies. Often, the residents cannot maintain jobs or finish a G.E.D. program because of the impermanence of their living situation and their lack of education, work ethic, and sense of responsibility. These poor habits and low expectations of themselves and others are usually the result of a tumultuous upbringing and lack of support from family and friend; and the government systems that are in place to help do not seem to be effective. On top of all this, these women have infants and toddlers to raise in a generally unstable environment. Some days, it can all seem a little hopeless.
Luckily, most days can actually be really great. Despite the ongoing frustrations, Siena House is a beneficial place for the women and children to live. The house staff and case workers are from the neighborhood and are perfect examples of people working hard day in and day out to make a life for themselves. Employees at Siena House do not have easy or glamorous jobs, but they remain positive, supportive, and helpful to the women, even when they do not get the appreciation they deserve. I feel lucky to be the Activities Coordinator at Siena House because I get to do a little bit of everything. I have been able to help with many aspects of Siena House and experience some of the responsibilities of each staff member; I can see how hard everyone works to keep Siena House nice and to keep the residents moving forward. Knowing what the directors and case managers deal with, I am grateful that I am not in a position of authority with regards to the residents. Because of my unique position, I am able to get to know the women and their children and become more of a friend--it seems easier for the women to listen to a peer. I'm happy to help make resumes, plan educational workshops, or aide the women with job searches. It's fun to meet the residents and over time discover their personalities, talents, and interests, because in many ways, it is easy to see them as just another case number. I also think my position is great because I get to make the house a little more like a home. I throw holiday and birthday parties and am able to plan fun activities like baking or arts and crafts for the women. I understand my task here as being with these women in the most human way possible--simply living with them--which is unfortunately missing in so many other parts of their lives.
Siena House works hard to help and support its residents and it's not always apparent if it actually makes a difference. I think that when everyone does their part, though, it does all add up. More often than not, former residents will call or write to express their gratitude for how Siena House helped them and their children. In a world full of governmental agencies, this gratitude is a wonderful thing to witness. Siena House truly helps these women, even if small, seemingly unapparent ways. While agencies promise big changes, Siena house is here doing its very best to be with these women in a human way, never treating them or their children as numbers or statistics, and in that lies the most hope of all.
Bronx, NY 2011-2012