The majority of women in homeless shelters have histories of trauma and abuse. According to new research, what they need to begin to heal and build a better future is an act that is basic, yet fundamental to all people — to be cared about and to be cared for.
Lotus House — one of the largest homeless shelters for women in the country located in Overtown, Miami — enlisted the help of several FIU psychologists to take part in a community-based research collaboration. The goal was to better understand how Lotus House alumni, who successfully transitioned from the shelter to stable housing, perceive and describe the shelter culture.
“Lotus House wanted to gather evidence of why their model was working — why more than 80 percent of their guests graduate successfully and enter housing,” FIU associate professor of psychology Asia Eaton said “They had preliminary answers, but needed researchers to document it and provide the scientific evidence that, in some ways, they already knew was true.”
While there have been several studies on shelter services — such as child care, mental health counseling, health care and employment services — there has been very little work done surrounding overall shelter culture. Understanding what constitutes a specific culture, though, is critical to addressing homelessness. With this study, the collaborative research team developed a blueprint that can be applied to other shelters, regardless of size or financial resources.
In the U.S., one-third of the homeless population is women and girls — and their experiences of homelessness are markedly different from that of men and boys. In fact, women are more likely to experience safety issues and violence while homeless. Knowing this, the researchers looked at why women’s specific services are key to addressing women’s unique experiences of homelessness, in addition to their overall health and wellbeing.
Asia Eaton's Psychology Today blog dives deepers in what a "culture of care" looks like and how it can be a way shelters, as well as other types of organizations can enhance and improve peoples' lives.
Research revealed that Lotus House has a strong “culture of care” — where the women are treated with dignity and respect, as individuals and not numbers. From focus groups with Lotus House alumni, different themes tied to shelter culture emerged and became the central elements that define and describe what a culture of care looks like in action.
First, women at Lotus House are treated with dignity and respect, have the space to rest and recover, and are given individualized attention and care that meets their needs. Of course, there are expectations for independence and accountability — including basic rules like following a curfew — that are in place help develop independent living skills. Participants also emphasized the community aspect of Lotus House, some describing it as a “sisterhood.”
Getting the research off the ground required time and trust. Every two weeks for a year, the FIU researchers — which included Eaton, as well as Associate Professor of Psychology Dionne Stephens, Ph.D. candidate Yanet Ruvalcaba and alumni Jasmine Banks — met with Constance Collins, founder and CEO of Lotus House. In those meetings, they learned about Lotus House’s mission, values and processes, and worked together to design the study.
Around 99 percent of the women at Lotus House have histories of domestic and intimate partner violence, are victims of other gender-based violence or have other significant trauma. That’s why the research team took a trauma-informed approach when hosting the focus groups with Lotus House alumni. The participants were given the power to guide the conversation, deciding what they wanted to talk about. They were co-researchers — and were even given notepads to write down their observations during the conversation.
Many of the women had spent time in other shelters where they didn’t feel safe and no one knew their name. They didn’t get enough food or receive enough supplies, even the most basic like a pillow. Each morning, they were told to leave. Each evening, there was never a guarantee a bed would be available.
“There’s an implicit and sometimes explicit assumption that if you make it uncomfortable that it will motivate people somehow. But these are people who have severe trauma, who need love, time and attention, in order to heal,” Eaton said. “You can’t have a culture of care when there isn’t even a bed available to shelter guests.”
The findings been shared with Lotus House leadership and staff — including Program Coordinator Jackie Roth and Wellness Director Rai Johnson, a Lotus House alumna — who will use them as a guide as the organization shapes current and future operations, programs and policies. Inspired by this study, Lotus House is currently conducting a national survey of women’s shelters to gather and share information on challenges and best practices.
“I think a culture of care is the future of organizational culture,” Eaton said. “Everyone talks about how we are going to reduce sexual harassment and improve diversity, equity and inclusion. A culture of care is a means to do all of these things.”
The findings were published in Journal of Community Psychology.