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August 24, 2008 — Mary Runge of Palm Bay, Florida, found herself without a job and her savings depleted. So last month the single mom went knocking on the doors of local charities for help. The 47-year-old mother of three was urged to tell the girl at the local abuse hotline: "tell them we have been abused, and we will receive all we need."
But Runge had never been a victim of abuse.
It used to be that in order to get into an abuse shelter, you had to have visible signs of harm — even if the injuries were fake. Columnist Denise Noe recounts her experience with a couple who had been evicted from their apartment. The wife reasoned, "My husband could black my eye so me and the kid could go to a battered woman's shelter."
But nowadays, abuse shelters dispense with the formalities — any good sob story will do. You see, intake workers are told to "always believe the victim."
Anthony Westbury, president of SafeSpace in Stuart, Florida, explains his shelter's open-door policy this way: "you don't put up any more barriers for victims wanting to enter the shelter." In Enid, Oklahoma, the YWCA Emergency Shelter actually advertises on its website, "we do NOT require proof of abuse."
"In all the time that I volunteered there, I saw one woman who showed signs of physical abuse," a former shelter worker revealed. The residents "were just gaming the system....All they had to do was make up some tale about some man abusing them — no proof needed — and they could stay up to 2 months at the shelter."
So once inside, how do these women milk the system?
The basic shelter package includes free room, board, and baby-sitting. And chauffeur-driven transport in the shelter van. Some shelters offer free pet care. In Naples, Florida, the Shelter for Abused Women and Children features a beauty salon where residents "can be pampered in a safe and convenient location."
Taxpayer-funded legal help is also available for just about any problem. If you need to get rid of a pesky husband, Bethany House in Falls Church, Virginia, can help. A former shelter volunteer describes the shelter as a "free hostel for women with emotional problems if they are willing to hate their husbands enough and are willing to take out protective orders against their husbands."
Daily shelter routines can be described as loosey-goosey. The women come and go as they please. Asked what the Buffalo Women Calf Society does to help women become self-sufficient, Melinda Zephier, a staffer at the South Dakota shelter, answered limply, "We don't push them."
Romantic liaisons thrive. One former shelter director revealed, "After hours, some of these women would sneak men into their rooms — the same men who had supposedly abused them." Other women take up with their female co-residents.
At Another Way in Lake City, Florida, you can toke a little weed and not worry about the consequences. "I, on numerous occasions reported illegal drug use that I had witnessed take place on Shelter property and often my complaints were ignored," a former employee revealed.
Once the "abused" woman is released from the shelter, she moves to the front of the line for welfare benefits, HUD housing programs, and almost everything else. If she is an illegal immigrant, a work permit is almost a sure bet.
There's more to the shelter shake-and-bake routine.
Because once word gets out that reaching the status of an "abused woman" is a free ticket to Easy Street, everyone wants to get a piece of the action. That means many must be turned away, including those women and men who are true victims of abuse.
All this comes as good news to the domestic violence industry. That's because telling potential donors and lawmakers about all the women and children who were refused help is one of the best cough-up-your-money arguments they have.
For example, the National Network to End Domestic Violence claims in its recent Domestic Violence Counts report that nationwide there were "2,923 unmet requests for emergency shelter." And the Colorado Domestic Abuse Assistance Program reports, "In 2006, 5,886 individuals were turned away from shelters in Colorado due to a lack of capacity."
Don't ask me to explain how there were 5,886 persons turned away in Colorado and only 2,923 unmet requests nationwide.
Fortunately, there are still a few good women left, ladies who refuse to sell their souls to a free-wheeling shelter system. Mary Runge is one such woman.
"I do not want to live on this twisted, sick system. I don't want them in my life...I don't want to play the game and lie. I only need help," Runge plaintively told me.
"All women are not feminist," she announces proudly.