Working With Women in Homeless Shelters

I like to say, “There are reasons people become homeless – and there are reasons people stay homeless.”    Some people come to shelters because of a short-term unfortunate circumstance; like losing a job, for instance. In this type of situation, temporary shelter and assistance is enough to help them to get back on their feet and move on with their lives.   Sadly, it’s the chronically homeless who use most of the services available at shelters and rescue missions.   For them, it is not just circumstances that keep them homeless – life controlling issues that must be addressed if they are to break the downward cycle.   This is especially true for women who end up in   family shelters.   Here are a few counseling strategies that are absolutely essential if we are to bring real help to them.

A.    A special strategy for people with drug and alcohol problems  –   Addicts have special needs that the “garden variety” sinner does not have.   They can be identified by using a standard alcohol screening test during the intake process.   Then we   can help them to get into an active program of recovery using such activities as support groups, addiction therapy, educational activities, etc.   Use community resources if the shelter’s staff does not have expertise in this area.   Addiction is a primary issue, so all other help giving will amount to nothing if the person cannot stay sober.

  B. The Issue of Toxic ShameBy definition, “toxic shame”   is an inner sense of being defective, faulty, unlovable, undeserving, unredeemable and hopeless.   It is a root problem for addicts, codependents and people from dysfunctional families.   Most adults in family shelters fall into at least one of these categories.   Toxic shame is the “glue” that holds the wall of denial together and prevents hurting people from accepting the help we offer them.   They think – “If I admit I have problems, it proves that I am a worthless, useless human being.”   Addiction leads to a total deterioration of a person’s moral life leading to a destructive mix of toxic shame and guilt.   The Bible tells us that admitting our problems (sin) is not an admission of hopelessness or “unredeemability.”   Instead, it is the key to forgiveness, freedom from our past and a new self-image.

  C. The Dynamics of CodependencyAnother critical counseling issue for women in shelters is learning to overcome the destructive effects of codependency, which is, essentially, the result of a lifetime of abusive relationships.   If this issue is not dealt with, codependent individuals will continue to become emotionally involved with people who are not good for them. Some symptoms are:

  •   A sense of little or no control over the circumstances of one’s lifeChildren growing up in dysfunctional families must somehow find a way to cope with all the pain and confusion.   This often results in a faulty belief system that continues into adult life that leaves people with an all-pervasive sense of powerlessness about practically every situation in which they find themselves.
  • Passivity in the face of disturbing and dangerous situationsPeople from dysfunctional families are used to living life in constant crisis.   So, painful circumstances do not cause them to seek change as it would for most people.   Instead, their learned helplessness results in a sense of resignation about even the most painful and dangerous circumstances.
  • Avoidance of social supportFor those who struggle with “toxic shame”, almost everything that happens to them in life seems to support their assessment of themselves as being no good, useless, powerless, unable to change or do anything right.   They tend to be filled with fear and insecurity, especially in social situations, making relationships very difficult.
  • Guessing at what is normalAn individual’s perspective of the world is formed largely by their home life.   Children from dysfunctional families grow up feeling isolated and different from others.   As adults they are forced to guess at what “normal” is.   As a result,   many people in our programs tend to be self-conscious, or have a hard time trusting, opening up and really feeling a part of things.
  • Out of touch with emotionsStuffing one’s feelings is an essential survival skill in a dysfunctional family.   This is why so many children follow their parents’ example, using drugs and alcohol to managing their emotions.   When an individual stops experiencing emotions in an appropriate, healthy way, they get pushed deep inside themselves.   As a result, they get more out of touch with who they are and what they feel.   That’s why they blame others, that’s why they keep hurting themselves.   On the other hand, one of the first consequences of coming into recovery is the revival of the emotional life.   Feelings often come out as anger and grief, often in seemingly inappropriate ways.   Yet, this can be an important sign of growth.


An important note for ministry to children:   I recommend a Christian program called Confident Kids  which is an effective tools for ministry to children in dysfunctional families.



Original version of this article appeared in RESCUE Winter 1995, journal of the AGRM

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