I Went Undercover at a Homeless Shelter: You Wouldn't Believe the Shocking Abuses I Found There

News & Politics

Editor's note: This post originally appeared on Tallahassee Grapevine. An investigation has been launched into allegations of abuse at the shelter.

I work with the homeless every day at City Walk. One of my biggest goals is to show them God's love, that there is hope, that they have value and they can overcome this trial in their life and get back on their feet.

We have a group of guys who stay at the shelter every day to escape the drama of that area of town. They love to come help and pass the time blessing other people. We help them apply for jobs online or in person, counsel them and figure out where they need to be (sometimes this involves letting them work off a bus ticket back to family).

Whenever I first heard complaints about the shelter, I shrugged it off. I figured of course they are going to complain about it. It is not supposed to be Club Med, but a place to sleep outside of the elements. If it was too comfortable, people would not be motivated enough to leave.

But as time went on, the complaints started coming from different sources about the same things. We give out backpacks, clothing and blankets at City Walk. I kept seeing the same faces come back for blankets or backpacks. When I ask them what happened to their other blanket or backpack, they told me staff at the shelter threw them away.

After getting this excuse 10 times a week for several weeks, I decided to inquire with my daily volunteers. They told me they won't let you bring your own blanket. I figured it must be so people can't sneak in any drugs, alcohol or weapons.

Many of the guys sleep outside under the polebarn, which is fenced in on shelter property. They told me that they are not allowed to bring their backpacks inside when they go eat. When they come back out to the polebarn, their backpacks were collected by staff and thrown in the dumpster. Many of these backpacks contained all the men had to their names, including important documents like their birth certificates, and photos and letters from loved ones.

The last straw was Sunday morning, when we picked up four of the guys for church. I asked them how they slept and they all said lousy. Their blankets were taken away and staff would not issue any of the 42 men who slept outside a blanket at check-in.

When one of the men went back up to tell staff that they all needed blankets, the staff member yelled at the guys, "You are not getting blankets tonight and I don't care if you all freeze to death!"

This irritated me, but I know there are two sides to every story. As I inquired with others, the stories matched up too well. I also know that many good citizens of Tallahassee go out of their way to donate blankets to City Walk or directly to the shelter, so to deny the men a blanket is spiteful to the rest of us who donate. It's funny they don't have any problem collecting their paycheck paid for from our donations and tax dollars.

So I decided to go undercover and see for myself what it was like for a women to check herself into the Tallahassee shelter. Since many of the staff had seen me around there giving out blankets and Bibles, I knew I had to disguise myself. I put on an auburn wig that made my hair shorter and a baseball cap.

Sunday night, as I entered the area to check in, an older black woman entered right behind me. The male staff member behind the counter yelled at the woman,"You're late for check-in, you have to sleep outside tonight!"

The woman walked out. I wondered why he let me in as she walked in right behind me.

He asked if I had been there before. I told him no. He asked for my name. I made one up. He asked for my phone number. I thought that was odd so I made one up. He told me to wait outside. I went out with the other ladies and children and a few minutes later he came out. He told me the phone number I gave him did not work.

I told him it was dead and I needed to charge it.

He said, "Okay, well here is my number. Call me and we can hook up later tonight."

Did I just get propositioned by a staff member? I was infuriated, but did not want to break my cover.

I answered, "Nah, man, I just need some food and some sleep."

"You don't want to sleep in there. It's dangerous. You can come sleep at my place. We can stop at McDonald's."

Seriously, a staff member, a person with some authority, was propositioning me; no, preying on a woman he knows is in a vulnerable situation. A woman comes to the shelter to escape the insecurity of the streets, not to be thrown to the wolves. Now I know why he let me stay and kicked the older woman out. He didn't want to get in her pants.

I wanted to stall him so I asked for a drink of water. He came back with his own half a bottled water for me.

He propositioned me again. He said, "It's not safe in there for women. You are better off coming home with me. I get off at 11:45. Just meet me in that parking lot over there."

I wanted him to leave me alone so I told him I would go with him later. He asked me to be discreet and not tell anyone. 

Inside, as I was waiting for a bed number, a different staff member needed to get to the dryer. As he passed me, he shoved me out of the way and I fell to the floor.

The man came back to remind me I was leaving with him at 11:45 and to be discreet.

I noticed a woman playing solitaire on her bed. I asked if she wanted to play a card game. She told me she would get kicked out if she was caught playing cards with others.

The looks on the faces of the women were despondent. I felt depressed and I knew I could leave at any time and go home. These women and children had nowhere else to go.

Dinner was half an hour late as we got herded outside like cattle into what I call the Cage. The Cage is a chainlink fenced-in area adjacent to the building. There is only one way in or out, and that door could only be opened from the inside of the building.

As the women were told to come back in, the staff member who kept asking me for sex told me to "Wait here." In the Cage, alone.

My mind was racing. I’m never scared in Frenchtown. I’m around prostitutes, addicts, dealers, and mentally ill people all the time and never scared. I never think twice. I’m usually armed with a Bible and known for preaching, but tonight I’m just a homeless person. How could I explain to my husband that I was raped tonight at the shelter. I immediately put my foot in the door just before he shut it.

"You're still leaving with me, right?"

I nodded.

"You didn't tell anyone, right?"

I said no. 
I decided the stories I had been hearing were true. I had experienced the abuse firsthand.

I had two babies and a husband at home and it was late and I better get going. But to sign out, I had to get past the solicitor. I got scared. I went into the bathroom and called the police. I told them what I was doing and to ask for my fake name at the front desk and have me come outside.

They arrived and my stalker wanted to come with me to talk to the police. I told the police I wanted to talk to them alone.

We went outside and I told them the story. They informed me there was no crime. A staff member can solicit a guest for sex if they want to. They agreed it was unethical, inappropriate and just plain wrong, but there was nothing they could do. So they gave me a ride back to my car.

As I was inside, I was able to talk to many of the women who stayed there, some with children.

I found out some pretty disheartening stories. I found out that in order to get your laundry done, you had to perform sexual favors for the staff or you would get put at the end of the list.

I found out that the "rules" depended on who was working at that time and it is common to be yelled at and berated in front of your own children. Nicknames given to the women by staff are things like "Fat Ass" and "Heifer."

If a woman decides to stick up for herself, she is threatened with a call to DCF to have her children taken away. If she further complains, she is threatened with being banned from the shelter, then a call to DCF because she has her children sleeping in the street. She just has to sit there and take the insults and cursewords as they are spewed out at her.

One women told me, “He knows we’re powerless here and he can treat us however he wants. I can’t go to anyone because I don’t want to risk having nowhere to go and losing my kids.”

A lot of the guys told me they choose to sleep outside because there is a bed bug infestation in the shelter. At first I did not truly believe it, but every day, our volunteers and their kids show up with bites all over them. One woman told me, "We just learn to live with it. It's better than having your kids sleep outside."

I don't believe in coddling people. It should not be easy to be homeless or that takes away the incentive of finding a way out. However, for many, finding themself homeless takes away much of their dignity. They don't need to be verbally abused, assaulted or treated with such disrepect, especially from the staff that is hired to care for them—with your tax dollars and donations.

That night, word got around at the shelter about what I did. Monday morning, as we were opening City Walk, George, a homeless volunteer who stays at the shelter, excitedly came to get me.

"Renee, come outside, hurry."

I go out front and look up at 7th Avenue. A large group of women, men and kids were walking toward City Walk, some with no shoes, some pushing baby strollers, some I had never seen before.

George said, "They know what you did last night and are here to see you."

I was already bawling my eyes out when they finally crossed Thomasville Road.

One of the women hugged me so long I thought she was not going to let go. She said, "Someone willing to do what you did last night shows you really truly care about what happens to us. We want to volunteer here today."

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