Meet Diana Whitney

Dec 2015

Hey friends! It seems like it has been a while, probably because it has! For me, November and December have been a whirlwind of residency interview travel, Christmas and Hannukah celebrations, as well as some Schweitzer milestones! The big event for us this December was our first-ever TV appearance. We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to publicize our project on Great Day Houston, a morning talk show on KHOU 11, with host Deborah Duncan and producer Courtney Perna. We had an approximately two-minute *live* TV spot on Great Day, filmed outside the Beacon, where we had the opportunity to talk about our project and what it means to be a Schweitzer Fellow! We were also able show off our donated phones (check out the photos, below — talk about blast from the past!), the new phones from 911CellPhoneBank.org that will be replacing them, as well as our newly minted Schweitzer Safe Streets Safety Kits! The kits (though still evolving) now include a new, labeled, 911-only Cell Phone, a whistle, crisis/rape hotline numbers, a Project Access bus schedule, list of women-friendly shelters/resources (personally curated by some of our ladies), and a granola bar. Future kits may also include condoms and information about our self-defense classes this spring. After the show, we received a number of emails asking for more information about how to donate, which was quite exciting! If YOU have donations or want to hear more, please contact us at our new email address: schweitzersafestreets@gmail.com.

You can see the clip of us on Great Day Houston here: http://www.khou.com/story/entertainment/television/programs/great-day-houston/2015/12/01/donate-cell-phone-help-homeless-women/76608078/

Oct 2015

Hi all! Happy belated Halloween and early Thanksgiving! The past month was certainly not without obstacles, but in true Schweitzer form I think Liz and I are making the best of it! The biggest boulder throughout our project has been the persistent closure of the Beacon, the day center for the homeless where our project is based and where we have found most of our clients. As we mentioned, the Beacon has been undergoing some much needed renovations. We had expected these to be done by early November, but unfortunately the center’s re-opening was pushed back yet again this month, so we were again unable to do our focus group and pre-evaluation surveys as we’d hoped. Because we were worried about further delays, and still wanted to get some face time with clients, we were lucky enough to network with Schweitzer Board member and mentor Dr. Andrea Link, who connected. Dr. Link is the Program Manager for Healthy & Whole, a program based at Angela House, where Dr. Link offers comprehensive trauma-informed care for women exiting the criminal justice system. Angela House is also the home-base site for fellow Fellow Maggie Raber (hey Maggie!), who teaches healthy cooking classes there. Part of Healthy and Whole’s mission is to break the cycle of homelessness, and because most women who exit the prison system and end up at Angela House have also been homeless at some point in time, their women have significant overlap in experience with our women at the Beacon. Given this crossover, Dr. Link was kind enough to let us take her Angela House group last week for a focus group!

We met with 8 ladies, all formerly incarcerated, all at Angela House, and chatted with them about their experiences with safety on the street, and more specifically, about insights they might be able to offer our group of women at the Beacon. They were so helpful and absolutely lovely and insightful women to hear from. The women we met had been at Angela House (and accordingly, out of prison) for different lengths of time, ranging from 6 months to 4 days. Though none identified currently as homeless, most had spent significant time living on the street or around people who did before going to jail, and most (according to Dr. Link’s intake data, ~90%) had traded sex for drugs/relative safety at some point. This meant they had lots of unique insights about what it meant to feel “unsafe” on the streets, and when I described what a “street partnership” was, all 8 heads in the room nodded – they knew exactly what I was talking about. Accordingly, they had lots of suggestions for things to add to our “safety kits,” including condoms (apparently not readily available at motels, where many of them spend time, because providing them is seen as promoting prostitution) and whistles.

Many described having similar experiences as our Beacon ladies. Some described sleeping during the day (and staying awake all night) because they found that to be safer. Similar to many of our Beacon ladies, they spoke about the need for a 24/7 drop-in type center or shelter that catered to women, where in one woman’s words they “might be able to have peace.” Given they’d been in the same shoes as our Beacon ladies, only days or months before, they had a wealth of ideas about how to best help, including providing a means for women to leave messages for family members at the Beacon, more Latino-friendly/Spanish resources, and more outreach for teenage girls, who often become homeless and enter prostitution after running away from home. Insofar as safety was concerned, they helped us come up with a list of shelters and food pantries that better serve women (all that they’d been to), including Ada House, Sally’s House, Santa Maria, Star of Hope, Project Access, SEARCH, The Secret Place, Lord of the Streets, Brazos Place, St. John’s and Loaves and Fishes. We’ll likely include this list with our safety kits as well. They also had some great suggestions for visitors to bring to the Beacon to chat with our ladies, including Planned Parenthood, or someone to do crafts that could then be gifted to people on the streets (“they could learn to knit hats!”). They were also endlessly enthusiastic about the idea of a self-defense class (“Dr. Link, can we do that here?”) and distribution of cell phones, and gave us some tips about how to do both safely at the Beacon (e.g. stickers on the phones stating they can only be used to call 911, which then decreases their street value).

My favorite suggestion from the day was one woman who described how she and other women on the street had sometimes used informal “watch” systems at night to stay safe. She talked about when a group of women—friends of hers–would often sleep in the same places, but then would each take turns staying up to watch over the group while the rest slept. As she put it, having a system like this “set up some responsibility, and [made her] feel some self-worth.” She thought this night watch system would be a simple, yet useful skill to teach other women. As she put it, though, any intervention for women “needs to build some accountability in.” I thought this was so insightful. In this vein, she recommended we distribute our cell phones in exchange for a certain amount of participation in our safety classes. When we asked the group if they’d be willing to share this insight –and others–with our Beacon group, they were excited about the opportunity – they would love to come to the Beacon for a class. As Liz and I said to them at the end—“you all have really lived what many of our ladies have, but have been able to come out the other side and reflect meaningfully on it, so we would love to have you come and share what you know with us and with them.”

We left the focus group session feeling inspired by our ladies and reminded that our clients have SO many valuable insights, if only we take the time to listen. This was in keeping with a reflection prompt our fearless ASFHG Director Gabrielle sent us this month, which beautifully talked about how “people we serve are often labeled by one aspect of their life which is out of order, e.g. “That’s the alcoholic.” or “He’s the ex-convict.” or “She’s mentally ill.”  or “She’s one of those welfare moms.”  Labels such as these carry dark, unfair judgments from society. Not only that, they rob people of the breadth of their identity, thus blinding us to the wholeness of the other person and the gifts they offer the world.” Thank you, Gabrielle, for giving us the opportunity to reflect on this.

Additional updates this month: we are actively collecting old phones and electronics (being recycled in exchange for 911-call phones to be distributed to our ladies) in partnership with911CellPhoneBank.org.  If you’re interested in donating, or setting up a donation box at your site, here are the specs:

Accepted items include:

  • Phones (all carriers, models)
  • Tablets
  • Laptops
  • Ipads
  • Ipods
  • Small electronics

Criteria for accepted items:

  • No age limit on phones or any other electronics
  • Tablets with broken screens accepted
  • Phones must still work (should be able to power them up, have a good screen, and be capable of performing a test call)
  • Phones that fail to meet these criteria or are or are technologically out of date will be recycled through a properly certified recycling agent by the organization
  • Power cords are welcomed but not required

For liability purposes, all devices will be cleared before recycling (see www.data-secure.org for additional information about this process). More information about the non-profit organization furnishing phones for us can be found at:  www.911cellphonebank.org

Feel free to leave a comment on the blog with questions about the donation process or anything else!

Lots of Schweitzer love, Diana

Sept 2015

Hi friends! Fall is in the air, and there’s been lots of change around here! September was both a good and bad month for us. It was good in the sense that we made significant logistical progress, but bad in the sense that we haven’t been able have any face time with our clients. To some extent this was expected – as mentioned last month, we ran into the significant boulder of having our main site shut down for renovations mid-project. Fortunately this shut-down has been relatively short-lived, and the Beacon (our main site) is slated to re-open on November 5th. Exciting news! As timelines go, this really isn’t too much of a delay, and Liz and I were quite relieved to hear we’ll be back working at the Beacon very soon! Last month was a big month for us in the sense that we finally set a firm focus and direction for our project. Though it took longer than we’d hoped, we were proud to have made this decision, especially as this was the culmination of a lot of direct work with our ladies at the Beacon. Furthermore, we felt the choice to focus on personal safety and domestic violence was something that we felt really validated our community and their voiced needs.

This month primarily involved laying the groundwork for the implementation of our proposed intervention, which is shaping up to be a series of “safety workshops,” with homeless women at the Beacon. These workshops will include three major prongs: 1) raising awareness through distribution of information about intimate partner violence and safety on the street, including information about womens-only shelters and shelters for victims of intimate partner violence in Houston, 2) distribution of emergency cell phones to at-risk women involved in the workshop, and 3) a 12-hour “Rape Aggression Defense” (R.A.D.) course that focuses on hands-on defense training for women. We’re excited to announce we’ll be partnering with several organizations to make this a reality. Current partners include the Houston Area Women’ Center (http://www.hawc.org), which is will be helping us identify important local DV resources and teaching points to make with our clients during our workshops, as well as the 911 Cell Phone Bank (http://www.911cellphonebank.org), which is providing us with emergency cell phones. We’ve got a few options lined up for self-defense classes – final details to come soon. In the meantime, thank you, HAWC and 911 Cell Phone Bank!

In the weeks to come, we’ll be setting up formal donation sites for collection of used cell phones and tablets. These donated items will be sent to 911 Cell Phone Bank, who clears them of data and recycles them. In return, they send us a shipment of brand new phones that they have received via a donation from a carrier. The phones they provide can be activated (with a purchased airtime card), but regardless, will still function as a 911 emergency phone that can be used to call for help in unsafe situations on the street or in shelters. Feel free to email us if you’re interested in setting up a donation box at your site!

My only anecdote from this past month comes from the International Street Medicine Symposium in San Jose, CA, that I was lucky enough to attend with Dr. David Buck with Houston Healthcare for the Homeless and several other Houston-area medical students. There, we had the opportunity to hear from a number of organizations and providers that work with this amazing but complicated population of patients. One nurse practitioner at the conference described the common irony inherent in the situation many of these women end up in: the homeless women she sees frequently attach themselves to violent men in order to stay (relatively speaking) “safe” on the street. She quoted one of her clients, describing the often horrific predicament this puts her in: “ I’m holding onto a shark so I don’t drown.” During the same presentation, she also told us that the life expectance of a female “rough sleeper,” (street medicine speak for a homeless client) is 43! This is compared to 47, for homeless men. Both were statistics I found very sobering, but numbers that also put our project in stark perspective –this is a universal problem, and one that warrants working toward real change.

August 2015

Hi all, hope you’re all doing well. Liz and I are excited to announce (…drum roll…) that we finally have a final direction for our project! As you all know, we started out our project with grand plans to focus primarily on menstrual hygiene. After talking to lots of ladies at the Beacon (~40 unique women, in fact), we found that while access to pads & tampons was a problem for many of them, one of their most significant concerns was, in fact, personal safety on the street. We determined this after reviewing data collected as part of our preliminary surveys, as well as holding our first formal focus group earlier this month! During our preliminary survey, of nearly 40 women at the Beacon, 63% of those surveyed said personal safety was a concern for them. As I’ve alluded to in prior posts, many women reported multiple anecdotes along those lines, including experiences with sexual harassment or public indecency from men, solicitation for sex, violent threats from aggressive men. Many said they’d even been stalked by ex-husbands and boyfriends; others had had interactions with other homeless people (many with serious mental health concerns) that they found quite scary. Even more said they’d been victims of theft. Because they were the definitive minority on the street, they felt there were not enough safe or private spaces in public (usually co-ed) shelters and day centers.

In late August, we met with 14 generous women at the Beacon to talk about ideas and next steps for our projects. Many women shared stories and experiences from their time on the street that only corroborated what we’d heard during our survey sessions. Some of the ones that stuck with me most: being attacked by men while trying to use the restroom outside, being solicited for sex not only by homeless men, but by Houston police officers in return for being spared a ticket. One woman spoke at length about the cycle of domestic violence, and described how she was constantly leaving her abusive boyfriend only to go back to him a few days or weeks later, despite knowing this was an unhealthy pattern. Another major theme that dominated our discussion were issues surrounding respect and humanity. Many women spoke of being treated as “less than human,” solely because they “looked” homeless, for example the 70+-year old woman who was told she couldn’t sit inside a McDonalds to stay dry briefly during a torrential downpour, or the younger and clearly pregnant woman who was told to leave when she tried to find a few minutes rest behind Minute Maid Park.

These stories tugged (and continue to tug!) and Liz and my heartstrings. We hope they tug at yours too. At the end of our focus group, we asked women about whether they would be interested in a self-defense class to address some of their safety concerns – they were in unanimous agreement that this would be helpful, not only because it would make them feel safer, but also, more empowered while living on the street. We were met with a similar response when we broached the topic of “emergency” cell phones to use in unsafe situations – many women said they could envision many scenarios where this would be helpful to them. With this feedback in mind, we’re excited to move forward with our intervention this month. We’ll keep you posted as the details unfold!

July 2015

Hi guys! Hope you all are staying cool and enjoying this last month of summer. Liz and I got a bit caught up with summer and life things this month ourselves, so are admittedly a bit behind schedule right now. We’re doing our best to take things in stride, though! Though July wasn’t quite as productive as we would have liked, we have still been busy in the past few weeks trying to narrow the focus for our project and decide on next steps.  In hopes of getting a little more feedback from women at the Beacon, we decided to do one more survey session before proceeding with a focus group as originally planned. This session was productive – we met with approximately 10-12 new women, each who filled out surveys with us, and had some good conversations with them. Throughout our time at the Beacon, many women have expressed similar concerns – fear about personal safety/domestic violence on the street, inadequate access to menstrual hygiene products, and difficulty finding housing/female-friendly shelters being the dominant themes – but new concerns come up every time we meet new clients. This month was the first time anyone expressed that access to birth control was a real issue for them.  The most memorable instance of this was a woman we met a few weeks ago. She had recently given birth to a baby boy, and had just been discharged from a local hospital a few days before. Sadly, she hadn’t been able to keep her baby (either he had been taken away or put up for adoption, she didn’t say). In talking to her a bit more it came out that she’d tried – but was ultimately unable – to find a clinic that offered free OCPs (oral contraceptives) after her first pregnancy. Having just heard that HOMES Clinic doesn’t offer birth control (it’s not seen as a drug class that not enough clients “need”) this was upsetting. I could only imagine what this woman was feeling, having had to endure not only the physical experience of giving birth, but also the trauma of giving up her child, only to end up back on the streets afterward. Not to mention she had no obvious plan in place for preventing it from happening again. If we do end up making OCPs more available at HOMES, hopefully we can make sure she knows that is an option for her.

So, where are we headed next? We’re not entirely sure yet, but ideas in the mix include:

-Free self-defense classes at the Beacon

-Distribution of “safety kits,” containing emergency cell phones (donated cell phones programmed to dial 911 at the click of a button) to be distributed to at-risk women for use in domestic violence/ unsafe situations on the street (credit to Fellow for Life, Shehni Haq (ASFHG ’13-’14) for suggesting this!)

-Distribution of menstrual hygiene kits with items like pads, tampons, and ibuprofen

-Working with Beacon/HOMES Clinic staff to make broad improvements in response to womens’ voiced concerns, including improving the shower set-up and making oral contraceptives more readily available

-Establishing a student volunteer to serve as a weekly women’s “point-person” at the Beacon on weekends, who can be available to answer questions, help direct women to information and resources, particularly about housing and shelters

June 2015

This month has been busy! I’m happy to report that we are now actively working with women at the Beacon. This is exciting, after so much time spent planning! We spent several Sunday mornings at the Beacon in June and July chatting with 22 different ladies about their health/hygiene concerns. To help spark conversation, we used a short survey tool to ask them about issues known to impact homeless women. Some of the things we asked them about included personal safety, menstrual hygiene, access to birth control/ STD protection, sun exposure, mental health/substance abuse concerns, and access to housing. We handed out small hygiene kits (with things like pads, soap, underwear, etc) to each lady who filled out a survey.

Last month, Liz and I mentioned that we were excited to give women an opportunity to have their voices heard. Most women we spoke with this month were pleasantly surprised that someone was interested in what they had to say. They have all been through so much. Without having really done anything for them yet apart from hand out some hygiene items in return for their participation, hearing them out still felt like valuable time spent. It gave women an opportunity to voice their concerns and feel, for a change, like someone was listening to them. As one sweet older lady (I’ll call her ‘Ms. B’) told me after going through a survey: “You know, it was really nice – to just talk to somebody.” This was after she told me some frightening stories about her life, many about the frequent times she has been threatened or solicited for sex, and how angry men became when she refused them.

 As part of our survey we also asked women for their ideas for how we might address their concerns and those of other homeless women at the Beacon. Many of the other ladies we spoke with said they often feel unsafe on the streets and in shelters – one of my favorite ideas suggested so far is offering a self-defense class for women at the Beacon. If this pans out, we’ll definitely make sure to invite Ms. B.

 Stay tuned next month for updates about our next session at the Beacon—we’ll be meeting up with some of the women we’ve surveyed for a  “brainstorming session” and focus group! In the meantime, want to create your own homeless hygiene kits? Check out one of the lists we used to make ours, here: http://goodlyblog.com/2014/01/15/helping-the-homeless-kit-guide/

May 2015

Liz Mercer and I are excited about finally rolling out our project this month! The initial vision for our project was to identify and address hygiene needs specific to homeless women that are often overlooked, specifically those related to personal/menstrual hygiene, e.g. reliable access to feminine hygiene products. This was inspired in part by recent media attention surrounding menstrual hygiene among homeless women (e.g. see this recent NYTimes article). Despite our initial focus, the first step in our project involves asking homeless women in the community to tell us about what they view as their most pressing health/hygiene concerns—issues that we expect will include not only menstrual hygiene, but other issues known to impact homeless women: family planning, reproductive health concerns, and domestic violence, among others. This month, we’ll be going to The Beacon, a Houston-area day center affiliated with HOMES Clinic, a student-run clinic for the homeless, and sitting down with community members on weekend mornings. By chatting with them over their morning coffee, we hope we can not only get to know them better, but also discuss ways we might all work together to better meet some of their needs. In the next few months, we’re hoping to collaborate with women in this community to develop an intervention (for example, distribution of female hygiene packs that include things like pads/tampons) that specifically addresses womens’ voiced concerns. We anticipate they have a lot to say, and are really excited to give them an opportunity to have their voices heard!