By: Ay-Yana Gore-Nelson
Hard cots, unfriendly strangers, and the feeling of desperation and loneliness are only a few issues on the laundry list of problems that women have while living in homeless shelters.
Takeerah Arnold has been in multiple homeless shelter across the state of New Jersey but refers to her stay at a shelter in Camden, NJ to be the worse.
“It was a chilling feeling as soon as I entered the building. The staff was cold, the place had a sickening smell, and no one cared about the wellbeing of the women there,” Arnold explained.
According to a NJ Counts 2016 report, Camden County is home to 7.6 percent of the homeless population in the state of New Jersey. Since 2015, the number of people in emergency shelter has increased by 22 percent.
Being homeless made Arnold feel like she had no right to have an opinion about the living conditions at the shelter.
“What could I say or do? I was homeless, I had no voice,” Arnold, 34, said as she ate her meal at a local McDonalds.
Originally from northern New Jersey, Arnold found herself homeless on the streets of Camden. With two small children at the time, she realized that living out of her car was not the best situation for her kids.
She decided to take her children and stay in a shelter but was shocked when she was turned away from the shelter because she didn’t have the right paperwork.
“Many people don’t know this but you actually need a referral before the majority of shelters in New Jersey accept you,” said Arnold.
Not only did the shelter ask her for a referral, they also asked her to prove that she was homeless.
“I wasn’t sure why my dirty clothes and endless tears weren’t enough proof, but I left the office feeling more hopeless than ever,” she said.
According to a Camden County report, 58.4 percent of all homeless people in Camden County identify as African-American, and out of that, 30 percent of them are women.
Arnold describe the high tension between the women in the shelter but blamed it on the lack of resources the shelter provided.
“Of course there was anger between the women there. Everyone had their own troubles they were dealing with, but, I believe if the shelter provided us with the personal necessities we need as women, a lot of drama could have been avoided,” she said.
During her stay at the shelter, Arnold had multiple items stolen from her such as sanitary napkins, snacks for her children, and other personal things she had left. The shelter said they were not responsible for any items lost or stolen.
“If the shelter gave women enough blankets at night, had enough pillows to go around, wasn’t stingy with the food, or at least provided us with feminine product, a lot of fights and thefts would have never happened,” said Arnold.
Arnold made it on her feet for a little while but eventually ended up back in the shelter. This time, she was pregnant.
“There is no special privileges for women who are pregnant in the shelter. No extra food, no extra padding for the cot and definitely no medical attention,” she said.
When it was time for her doctor’s appointments, Arnold had to find her own way there and her own way back. She also had to make sure that she was back in time or her spot would be given to someone else. Her being pregnant this time around did not change the attitudes of the workers there.
“It was bad enough the women in the shelter with me made me feel constantly uncomfortable, but the staff ended up being untrustworthy, liars, and never actually wanted to help any of the women there,” said Arnold.
Even though Arnold knew she could not have a space to herself, she thought the workers would at least make sure the woman that they put in her room were not a threat to her or her baby.
“I had a different bunk mate every night and each one of them made me afraid for the safety of my unborn child,” she said.
This time, Arnold found a group of nice women in the shelter and they were able to get assistant living, or what is also known as transitional housing.
According to Camden County records, 127 women are in emergency shelter, 29 are in transitional housing, and 47 are left out on the streets.
Today, Arnold has gotten securely back on her feet, has a job, and her own place to raise her kids. Arnold is one of the luckier women who actually managed to get back on her feet and has no plan on tuning back.
“Looking back on it, I know that I will never go back. If I ever found myself homeless again I would do anything possible to not end up back in a situation like that, she said.