A home of her own

Day 25–July 28 (North Versailles, PA-Pittsburgh, PA, 12.7 miles)

Virginia Woolf once said that for women to be successful as writers they had to have a “room of one’s own.” But many women do not even have a place to call home, let alone a room to devote to creative endeavors.

In Pittsburgh there are numerous shelters, but they are not a home. They are at best a temporary resting place, an opportunity to regroup and gather resources for the endless battle to keep a roof over one’s head.

Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, I walked off the street into Bethlehem Shelter just as so many homeless women have done before me. While I was being checked in, a woman who worked at the women’s shelter told me that there are more homeless women than homeless men in the United States. She suggested that many men who would otherwise be homeless, are instead behind bars. And, many women find themselves on the streets as they attempt to escape from domestic violence. Though I found ample evidence to suggest her statement was correct, it was a challenge to find hard statistical data. Few reports on homelessness detail gender.

But there is no shortage of evidence showing that women are far more likely to live in poverty. In 2008 the wage gap meant that women in this country were paid just 77.1¢ for every $1 earned their male counterparts. And more than half of the roughly 37 million Americans living in poverty are women.

Few sectors are immune from the wage gap. When I plugged my income, industry and location into the wage gap calculator on the WAGE Project’s Web site, I found that I make just 73% of the income of the average white non-Hispanic male with my same job title and geographic location. Even worse, over my entire working life, it was calculated that discrimination will cost me $861,734.52.

The women at Bethlehem Shelter all had different stories yet the same story. A hard life, bad luck and few resources. Many had job interviews and a local charity outfitted women with everything they would need from clothing down to makeup. But starting a new life from scratch is no easy task.

No matter how nice the staff and residents, how clean the building or how nice the food, the shelter was still just that to me. Yet my roommate told me it was far nicer than her previous living conditions. At retirement age herself, she said her elderly mother was abusive and then had kicked her out. She was forced to move all of her belongings into storage and move into the shelter. For her, getting a job is not an option. She spent her entire working life in an office resulting in arthritis, severe carpal tunnel, and a bad back. And, though her health problems are likely the result of occupational repetitive motion stresses, it is unlikely she will be compensated for sacrificing her body and future livelihood for her job.

Like many shelters, this one had rules that told its all-female residents when to get up, when to eat, when to leave and even when to shower. Whether or not the rules were there for the benefit of residents, it reduced them to children. One sign reminded everyone that the showers were for washing hands, brushing teeth, while the showers were for bathing. Entering a shelter means checking your privacy, pride and self-determination at the door. Surely shelters can do a better job. How is one to gain self-esteem and the confidence to rise above homelessness and poverty and to take care of one’s self if shelters treat residents like children with no rights or freedoms?

My roommate told me of the night she was woken up well past midnight by an unexpected new roommate entering her room. In her half-asleep state she thought the tall and broadly built woman was a man entering her room. Many at the shelter did not understand why she was angry. But she did not need to explain her anger to me. I understood. Even though she did not have the right to say who could or couldn’t be her roommate, she at least deserved the courtesy of being told a new roommate was about to arrive.

Many women stay in the shelter, get a job and get back on their feet for good. But many others, I was told, find themselves within reach of their goal and then intentionally sabotage their chances of success. It was suggested to me that after a lifetime of low expectations, sometimes the possibility of success and the accompanying responsibilities is just too far outside the comfort zone. Much like those who spend years in prison become institutionalized, so too are women who spend years being told they are not good enough or deserving enough to have a good home and a good job.

A home is not a luxury only for the beautiful and the rich. It is a basic human right. Shelters are at best a Band-Aid. We need permanent solutions in the form of more affordable housing.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper