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Storm in a shelter: volunteers vie with YWCA for control of Evanston battered women's center

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Both sides agree that folks had nothing but the best of intentions when they started the Evanston Shelter for Battered Women and Their Children back in 1981. "There was no home for abused women in the area," says Rosaline Herstein, a volunteer, who used to edit WEAVE, the shelter's newsletter. "It was time to bring the North Shore into the 20th century."

So several not-for-profit organizations, including the Evanston-based North Shore YWCA, joined forces to open the shelter in a Y-owned building. Over the years, it has won wide praise for its humane treatment of battered women.

But last month, state investigators recommended that the state terminate funding for the shelter, charging Y officials with spending shelter funds on unrelated Y expenses.

In addition, a bitter internal struggle has erupted as Y officials wrestle with shelter volunteers over the shelter's future. Technically it is part of the Y, though it receives more than half its funds from other sources, including the state. Many of the volunteers who counsel residents and operate the shelter's crisis telephone line are health professionals or retirees with no official ties to the Y. So when Y officials recently tightened the reins, the long-simmering rivalry between the Y and the volunteers was brought to a boil.

"The shelter used to be a therapeutic and healing place--a place where battered women could start the long process toward getting back on their feet," says Julie Berg-Einhorn, a volunteer. "Now it's like a prison. The residents, who are victims, are treated like they did something wrong. The staff's in turmoil; it's chaos. It's awful."

YWCA officials counter that the volunteers, though well-intended, have exaggerated the turmoil. "The shelter is going through a transition," says Marilyn Fischbach, president of the Y's board. "We're hiring a new director to fill a vacancy. We're making changes that are long overdue. In the short term, some people will be upset. But in the long run, the shelter will be better."

The idea of opening a shelter followed a 1979 report by the Junior League of Evanston that showed the number of battered women in the North Shore suburbs was on the rise. In those days, domestic violence was largely ignored--brushed aside by police as a private family affair. "If a woman was brave enough to come forward and ask for assistance, the police generally brought her to the YWCA," says Herstein. "There was no place else to take her."

So Junior League officials got together with members of the National Council of Jewish Women and several other women's groups to open a shelter in Evanston.

"The idea was to have a safe house, whose location was kept secret, where women could go for counseling and help," says Herstein. "We had the volunteers; we needed a building."

That's where the YWCA came in. It owned a building in Evanston with space available and had connections to mainstream donors like the United Way. A deal was struck, and the YWCA became the shelter's fiscal agent, meaning it was the group through which all operating funds where funneled. The shelter opened in 1981.

Its beginnings were a little shaky: The building was old, its wiring bad. Air conditioners could not be installed, and in the summer temperatures rose above 100. Roaches and rodents plagued the shelter year-round.

Beyond that there were the day-to- day traumas and tensions of 30 women and children living in close quarters. "All of the residents were in various stages of depression and anger, trying to cope with feelings of rejection, trying to start anew," Herstein says. "It could get tense at times. It was always a struggle to find a little space where volunteers or staff could be alone with residents to offer counseling. It was not rare for tensions to flare."

But the workers there felt like they were accomplishing something, and there was a feeling of solidarity. Volunteers were particularly fond of former shelter director Chris Bensten.

"Chris was the director in the mid-1980s, and her philosophy was to prepare women for self-sufficiency," says Herstein. "Those were the golden years of the shelter."

When Bensten left for another job in 1988, tensions rose between volunteers and Y officials. Herstein says Bensten's presence maintained some distance between the Y administration and the shelter staff. "After Chris left, the Y officials let us know that this was their shelter."

The first big showdown came in early 1989, when Herstein published revealing first-person accounts of shelter life in WEAVE. "[Women] enter an environment that is cramped, noisy, tense, chaotic and constantly in flux with families coming and going. Emotionally charged bonds form and break among residents, children, staff and volunteers in our crucible," read one passage by a counselor. "The shelter, like life, holds no guarantees, but women can and do find here a collective strength that transforms and empowers."

When they saw the page proofs, Y officials demanded the passage be dropped, Herstein says. "I thought it was a strong piece," she says. "It wasn't critical; it was real. We wanted people to understand what life in the shelter is like."

The essay ran, but the incident left both sides with bad feelings. It didn't help that the shelter had gone through two directors since Bensten. The last permanent director, Njoki Kamau (an African-born woman), was fired this summer amid charges of racism--an accusation Y officials deny. Since then the shelter has been managed by Y executive director Helen Wronski.

On October 15 of this year, the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the state agency that oversees such shelters, released its critical report.

"[We are] concerned that [state] funds have been used to partially relieve the YWCA deficit and that quality services to domestic violence victims have not been maintained," the report read, citing instances where money donated to the shelter was used to repair the elevator and swimming pool in the main YWCA building.

The charges are being investigated by the state Department of Public Aid, which contributes about $270,000 to the shelter's annual $400,000 budget. Y officials say they are innocent.

"We run the shelter the way any business is run," says Fischbach. "We're constantly putting money that comes in into a general fund and we pay the bills as they come. Sure, a percentage of the elevator repairs were allocated to the shelter. But shelter people use Y rooms for meetings, don't they? The shelter residents also have access to the pool."

The volunteers want the shelter's budget separate from the Y's and the shelter to be taken from Wronski's control. "One of the first things Helen did when she came on earlier in the year was to let the volunteers know that the shelter was a YWCA facility and that it would be run by the Y's rules," says Herstein. "She even read us the Y's mission statement."

Wronski also implemented a host of new rules and regulations, which the volunteers resent. A violation of the rules results in a warning; after three warnings, residents are asked to leave the shelter. One woman got a warning for having a box of cookies in her room. Another got one for keeping a glass by her bed. A third lost television privileges because she left the set running while she stepped out of the room. "The women are psychologically fragile," says Berg-Einhorn. "This is the last thing they need."

Conditions at the shelter are so intolerable that few residents stay for more than three weeks, the volunteers charge. "Now it's like a home for the homeless," says Peg Romm, another volunteer. "That's not enough time for residents to get back on their feet."

Y officials defend Wronski, who declined to comment. "Helen is doing a good job under difficult circumstances," says Fischbach. "Changes had to be made; the shelter was in turmoil. It's true, women are not staying as long. But we're not a long-term treatment facility. [Our staff is] not trained for that."

On November 1 volunteers and Y officials met again. Fischbach opened the meeting with the old homily about two people who come upon an elephant in the middle of the night: one feels the trunk and thinks it's a snake, the other feels the tail and thinks it's a vine, and with the light of the morning they both see it's an elephant.

"Each of us is seeing this from a perspective that is true," she continued. "We have to bring daylight so we can see the whole thing and move together." The volunteers were unmoved.

"There are no snakes or elephants," one volunteer exclaimed. "It's all a wall."

"You should spend some time in the shelter," another added. "It's appalling and abusive. The women come for safety and support, and it's like a prison in there."

At the meeting, the volunteers proposed to distance the shelter from the Y by, among other things, giving it a separate budget. Fischbach promised to consider the suggestions, though they're not likely to be adopted.

"The shelter is a Y program; if you can't live with the mission statement of the Y, you shouldn't get involved with the shelter," says Fischbach. "It's a little like being a part of the Catholic Church and saying, 'Well, can Methodists join?' This is who we are. Perhaps the volunteers want to rent our building and have nothing to do with the Y. But we don't subcontract programs; we manage our own programs. Maybe they are really saying they want to operate their own shelter. That would be fine. We need more shelters."

In the end, a permanent divorce may be the only solution.

"Basically, the Y is saying, 'If you don't like the way we run our shelter, go run your own,'" says Herstein. "It's hard to get a shelter going--it's hard to find a building with the right zoning. But it just may come to that."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.

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