I Want To… Work At A Domestic Violence Shelter


I received an email from Lizz last year which said…

I saw on your interview with Sayward Rebhal that she contacted you about being a part of the series, and I didn’t even realize you could do that! I’m currently a resident advocate at a domestic violence shelter; essentially, when I’m on shift I work as a house mom/counselor/crisis line operator/jane of all trades. I’ve been working at this job fairly briefly, but I’ve been volunteering in the field for over a year, and I know it’s ultimately what I want to make a career out of (although I know that means it will manifest into something different within the field itself). All that said, whenever I tell people what I do, they always comment about how they don’t understand how someone could be involved in that, they wish they knew how people take the emotional toll, they would like to get involved, etc. I love talking about my experience because there are a lot of misconceptions about domestic violence and the women who come through these kinds of shelters; my experience dispels a lot of the misinformation that perpetuates those misconceptions. Also, working with these women has vastly altered my perspective on humanity, as well as the way I approach the world and my relationships. I’m so invested that my head is there about 95% of the time–even when I’m not working! I would love to contribute, if that sounds like something that would be a good fit!

Of course I wanted her to contribute! I can think of few worthier causes. Here’s our interview, & if you have additional questions for her (or you just want to know more about her!), check out her blog!

Tell us about what you do.

I work as a Resident Advocate in a domestic violence shelter for a non-profit organization that runs three shelters in total (two homeless, one DV). What that means is that I’m essentially a house mom/counselor/crisis line operator/office assistant/jane-of-all-trades.

What does an average day at work look like for you?

I tend to work the evening shift, which means my day starts in the middle of the afternoon. The shifts overlap a little bit so that the person finishing their shift can meet with the person coming on, and let them know what happened within the house, what the general energy is, if there was any drama amongst the women, if we’re expecting any new intakes, if anyone exited the shelter for good, and anything else that seems pertinent. After that, I do a walkthrough of the shelter, say hi to the ladies who are home, and go back to the office to settle in for my shift. Usually at that point, I call to check the availability of the other shelters (the DV shelter runs the crisis line that does all of the intakes for our organization), I check in to see if there’s any other important information left from other coworkers regarding the shelter, and prioritize what I need to get done for the day.

Like any other non-profit, we have a strong team that works really hard on keeping things running smoothly, but there’s so much work to be done that it can feel like we’re constantly playing catch up. Usually I have my own little projects I assign to myself, since I can’t stand to be bored–whether that’s reorganizing a closet, cleaning up client files, updating signs/referrals, etc., I’m always trying to do something with myself that can help all of our team have one less thing to deal with.

The clients often come in and ask for things (to look up directions, to brainstorm on job/house searching, or for basic little stuff, like toiletries or cleaning supplies), and whoever is on staff does a walkthrough of the premises regularly to ensure that everything is calm and safe. The vast majority of time on shift, though, is spent listening. Whether the ladies in the shelter are having a day full of triumph or disaster, they often want to talk about it, and part of my job is just to be available for them to vent, rant, cry, share their frustrations or their successes. It is simultaneously one of the most difficult and most rewarding aspects of my job.

Other than what I’ve already mentioned, everything else is in a constant flux, and never predictable. Sometimes there will be major conflict between residents, that can require staff mediation. One of our staff members does an amazing job of planning celebrations (birthdays, baby showers), and she makes it a party for everyone, staff and residents alike, and so when one of those goes down, whoever is there is running around trying to help and wrangle people. Often I’ll have to pick up an intake, which can take a good amount of time; the first few days in the shelter are the hardest, and usually a woman coming in has a very high level of anxiety and stress, which means that a good chunk of that shift will be spent with her, doing paperwork and talking out the situation that she’s coming from. Sometimes I’ll have to deliver an exit letter, which is essentially telling the resident that they have to leave. Each day can range from relaxed to completely insane, depending on the dynamic of the house, how busy the crisis line is, how each woman’s day went, and what decisions are being made by the higher ups in the program.

Do you work alone or with other people?

Both, really! RAs can be pretty isolated because there’s only one person on shift at a time, but we still have a support network that enables us to do our jobs well. We still have staff meetings, RA retreats, and the overlap between shifts to communicate, support, and pass on work that we couldn’t get to on our shift (we work as a team by “passing on the baton,” so to speak). We also rely on our on-call person for urgent inquiries and other support. Whenever we’ve had an intense conversation, mediated a conflict, or dealt with a resident lashing out on us, we can use our on-call as a consult for what to do, as well as for emotional/mental support.

Is this what you wanted to do as a child? Did you end up in this job by “accident” or was it a planned career choice?

This is DEFINITELY not what I saw myself doing as a child! I grew up in the arts, and for a long time, it seemed obvious that an artistic pathway was my calling. I started doing theatre and dance at three, played piano from seven until about fourteen, went to a performing & fine arts high school, and eventually went to a private arts university for photography. I ended up dropping out of that private arts university for financial and family health reasons, which was utterly devastating. I worked a series of awful, unsatisfying jobs (ranging from a bookstore to a restaurant to a semi-corporate job in a hotel’s sales office), and kept trying to go back to school, but with little success. My setbacks were huge, and I didn’t have the emotional capacity to take on the gravity of the events in my personal life while focusing on school.

I’d always been an avid reader, even when not immersed in academia, and I spent a lot of time reading books from the sociology and women’s studies section of the bookstore, which planted the seed in my head. When I returned to school, all that I’d read encouraged me to immerse myself in a Sociology course or two, which in turn, made me realize how much I wanted to improve the lives of others. Despite my love for the arts, became clear to me that if I was going to be a broke, working class chick for the rest of my life, I might as well do something to improve the world while I’m at it. I had a professor that was also working as an advocate for sexual assault survivors (specifically women and children) in a local district attorney’s office. When she told our class a little bit about what she did, I thought, “That is exactly what I want to be doing.” I talked to her, she gave me some referrals for volunteering, and then that led me here!

How long ago did you start on this path?

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I believe that this path started back when I became a survivor of domestic violence. It took me a long time to recognize that what happened within my relationship was abusive and absolutely not ok. Reconciling the idea that someone who I loved, and who I thought loved me, could do such terrible, destructive things to me (and to themselves) was extremely difficult. However, once I did, I stepped on the pathway to women’s advocacy. The first step was becoming an advocate for myself.

How long were you doing it before you made it into your career or primary form of income?

I’d been volunteering for a domestic violence non-profit based out of San Francisco for about seven months before getting hired at my current agency. Even so, I had two other jobs at the time, and this didn’t become my main gig until September/October of this year.

What kind of education do you have?

I am currently a four time college drop out. After dropping out of the private university, I kept trying to go back to community college while working two (or three) jobs at the same time, and really struggled. After taking two years off, it got harder. What they say is true: It really is much more difficult to go back to school after working instead of just suffering through it. I’ve made it a priority to keep reading and researching on my own, and I’ve made it possible to return back to school in the spring, which I’m eagerly looking forward to.

Other than that: I’m a state certified domestic violence counselor, which means I went through forty hours of training that included peer counseling techniques, statistical and historical facts, detailed information about Battered Women’s Syndrome and the specific psychology surrounding intimate partner violence.

Do you think official qualifications are important for someone entering your industry?

I know that many of my coworkers do not have official degrees. Instead, they have work experience and a passion for working with women who need help. However, I know for a fact that any advancement is significantly predicated on having a post-secondary degree. It’s fantastic to get involved and get the work experience, but to advance and make a career out of this kind of job, one needs to get an education.

If you went to school, did you enjoy studying? Could you see where it might lead you at the time? What advice would you give to someone else who might be studying to get into your industry?

As I said before, I’m a college dropout who is returning to school, so this question isn’t entirely applicable. I do want to say, though, that the classes I have taken (even General Education classes) have significantly improved my ability to succeed at my job. Communications classes? The best way to help people is to know how to communicate with them, and that means all of them. Sociology classes? Knowing about privilege and the way society is socially constructed is hugely important to empathizing and understanding what each of our clients face when they try to re-enter the world as autonomous women. Any class that requires you to research? I have used so much of this skill in a huge variety of ways, whether it’s looking up the answer to an obscure question about work or housing or California law, or learning more about mental illness and substance abuse, or additional counseling techniques. The way that this job made these classes more meaningful is a huge factor in my decision to return to school.


What do you think is the best thing about what you do?

Sharing the successes of the women who are in the midst of dealing with one of the most horrible experiences of their life. The feeling that comes when I know that they are allowing me to be part of their healing. The way that I can see the positive effect I’m having on my community and my world.. The inspiration that comes when I see firsthand their generosity, their sense of humor (that arrives even during their darkest moments), and their unfailing kindness.

What’s the worst thing?

Watching them sabotage one another. Often times, women enter the shelter in pure survival mode, which can manifest itself as stolen items, intentionally destroyed personal items, or flat out aggression and blatant arguments. It’s really disappointing to see women who are coming from equally horrific situations to take it out on one another.

What’s even worse than that is watching a woman break down as she realizes the people around her are abandoning her in her greatest time of need. Listening to a woman with children plead with her parents to defend her in court against her abuser’s lies, saying, “For God’s sake, tell them I’m not crazy!” and crying because her family’s excuse for not helping is that they “don’t want to get involved”. It’s devastating to watch, and the logic behind it is completely unfathomable to me.

Would you call yourself a workaholic, & if so, are you alright with that? Do you think that’s normal for your industry?

Yes, and yes. I have to remind myself to sometimes take it easy, and not beat myself up when I have an off night (read: slightly slower and less productive than hyper-crazy-productive).

I absolutely think this is normal. My coworkers are equally invested, emotionally, physically, and sometimes even financially. It’s not uncommon that someone will call on their day off to check in and see what happened with a resident, or just see how things are going at the house. It’s impossible not to get sucked into this work because of how we get to know these women. We truly see them at both their best and worst, which is an intimate process when you consider the fact that when these women come in, we are complete strangers to them. Plus, almost everyone I know got involved in this work because they felt fervently compelled to help others who were in need. Starting at a high level of investment creates inevitable workaholism.

What would your number one suggestion be for someone who wants to do what you do?

Start learning about domestic violence. I’d bet that there are things about DV that you do not know, and never guessed. Even if you are a well-versed feminist, I would be shocked if you don’t learn a thing or two that challenges your own prejudices and the way you approach the world.

…How about number two?

Start volunteering! The best thing you can do is get involved with your local organizations that work with women and children. You can see if you like it, ease into it, and start getting a feel for what aspect of this world you’d like to be a part of. Plus, your best way to get experience and make the connections required to get a job is to volunteer, volunteer, volunteer.

What do you wish you had known when you first started out?

I wish I’d been prepared for the changes that happened in me as a result of working with these women. And I wish I’d understood how secondary trauma manifests itself. I knew that hearing stories of abuse and trauma would affect me, but I thought it would be immediate. I thought I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from bursting into tears or being openly devastated for the next 24 hours. It’s much more subtle than that, though. I also didn’t realize how working with these women would change my ability to establish and uphold my boundaries within my relationships, how it would change what I’m willing to tolerate from my own romantic partners, and even the kinds of jokes I like. It has changed my entire perspective of the world, and of people, and I wish I’d had more of an understanding as to how deep that shift would be.

Are there any major misconceptions about your job or industry?

Oh, goodness. Yes. There are a lot of classist, racist, and otherwise prejudiced assumptions about the women who come through our shelters and there’s a lot of misinformation about domestic violence as a whole. There’s a wide range of women who come through our shelters, from a variety of socioeconomic classes. Some are very well educated. Some are very mentally ill. Some have major substance abuse issues. Some have been homeless their entire lives. Some have absolutely never been homeless before. Some have well paying, full time jobs, and some can’t work at all. There is a wide range of women who come through here, and it’s not because they are stupid, lazy, or because they “deserved it”.

Do you ever have any ethical dilemmas with the work you do?

The only time there’s any kind of dilemma is when we have to ask someone to leave, and they don’t have anywhere to go. Especially if it’s a woman with children. Unfortunately, though, if it gets to the point where we have to ask someone to leave, we usually have done everything possible to make their stay here successful, and they simply aren’t ready to move forward, which can manifest itself in a plethora of rotten behaviors.

What is the best thing that’s happened to you as a consequence of the work you do?

The inspiration that these women give me. My life has new meaning and purpose because of their strength and sense of humor. If they can do what they do, then I can do anything, and there is no reason not to pursue my goals with unstoppable optimism and determination.

What motivates you to keep doing what you’re doing?

Knowing that I’m not alone in the effort to assist these women and help end domestic violence. There is a huge support network of women (and men!) who help keep my agency, as well as many others, open and running. No matter how hard things get, no matter how much ignorance is out there, no matter how scary this job can be, I know that I’m not carrying the burden alone. We are all in this together, working to support and improve our community. That keeps me going.

Who do you look up to within your industry & why?

I would say I deeply admire Eve Ensler, Cindy Gallop, and Margaret Cho for their feminism and activism–I don’t know if they count since they aren’t necessarily in my industry, but I think the work they do is definitely connected and worthy of admiration. Other than that, I would say that my coworkers are the most amazing people. I am continually shocked and impressed with their intelligence, compassion, cleverness, and insight. They come from all different backgrounds, with different lives and motivations, and we all manage to work together as a team. My supervisor is especially a hero to me–she has encouraged me when I’m breaking down, she has reminded me that I’m entirely capable at succeeding when I’ve felt like giving up, and she’s completely inspired me to follow in her footsteps. She is deeply respected by all of the residents, and she is the rock of support to our team. I am so proud to work under such an incredible woman and person.

Rate how happy you are with what you do out of 100 (100 being the best, 0 being devastatingly awful) on an average day.

That’s really hard to say. I would say on an average day, it would probably be at around 85. Mostly because the average day is filled with average stuff like administrative tasks and menial shift duties. There are days that hit 0 (how many times have I cried while waiting for the BART train, or while driving home? how many times have I gone to sit in my local dive bar, only to be served free drinks by a sympathetic bartender who can see from the look on my face that I had a rough one?), and there are days that exceed the 100 (the baby shower we organized for one of the ladies in the shelter, the days when someone excitedly leaves to go to their own apartment). But for the most part, things run at 85.

Is there much career progression available to you? What would you like to do next?

There is definitely room for advancement, both within this organization and others, but most of the advancement does require an education. What I’d like to do next is get at least an Associate’s Degree–that’s a start! Other than that, I’d love to get involved in case management, and I’d love to learn more about non-profit business management so that I can start writing grants. Those are my goals for the next few years.

Do you think you’ll continue doing this for the rest of your life?

In one way or another, absolutely. Even if my career path changes, I see myself always volunteering or otherwise being involved in this world. It is both the hardest and most gratifying thing I have ever done. I am indebted to these women for what they have given me, and how they allow me to help them to the best of my abilities. I am indebted to the agency I work for because of the opportunities they’ve given me. This job constantly reminds me that the world is here, this is my life, and it is amazing.