On Innocence: Stories of survival and hope

Sophie Slater writes about the women of Palmer House.

“Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood… No one after a certain age has the right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, or amnesia.”

Susan Sontag, Regarding The Pain of Others

By Sophie Slater

I may have come to the middle of my second week working at SLYMCA, but today was my first extended length of time spent in the actual hostel. After a week of strategic plans, policies, procedures and paperwork, it was both refreshing, and daunting, to meet the flesh-and-blood beneficiaries of these projects.

The hostel I’m placed in houses sixty ‘customers’, as we are to call them – in this era of privatisation, the word ‘customer’ conveys the appropriate level of legal ‘customer rights’ to which they are entitled to. The ‘customers’ at Palmer House have specifically been placed there, due to often overlapping combinations of personal tragedies, dependencies and vulnerabilities, which culminate in them being given the term ‘complex needs’. It is also the workplace of a large team of committed, sensitive, and resourceful support workers. The support workers attend meetings with their customers, draw out move-on plans, and provide a channel for choices, for engagement, for positive changes.

My specific goal for the next four and a half months, as phrased in my induction pack, is to “improve the wellbeing of women at SLYMCA”. The heft and depth of that task is not lost on me. 19% of homeless women clients in a recent St Mungo’s report had experienced child abuse. A third said that domestic violence had contributed to their homelessness. Half had experienced domestic violence. Funding towards alleviating homelessness has also shrunk by 17%. If you’re a homeless woman, the funding specifically targeted towards you shrinks again to 12%, and now it’s going down again, to 8%.

After meeting two of the women I should be building workshops and activities with today, it’s apparent how long, arduous, and heartbreaking their paths for survival have already been. After sitting and chatting for the best part of an hour, I naively and selfishly felt the desire to be a friend, a counsellor and a support worker to them. But not even their well qualified friends, support workers and counsellors can be all of that. Disclosing trauma can be a survival mechanism, and I want us to utilise this to build something powerful enough to improve the wellbeing of surviving women. Trusting, believing, telling stories, and sharing coping strategies. These important tasks can be done in the smallest and simplest of ways; through writing, art, and, I hope, other outlets compatible with the workshops we’ll be working on.

Going back to Sontag, I was describing my shift in attitudes to the world to a friend the other day, and ended up calling the process a “Goodnight Mr Tom moment”. For anyone who’s read the much loved children’s book, I likened my previous experience as a volunteer on the helplines at Manchester Rape Crisis as akin to this. I read Goodnight Mr Tom as a slightly precocious ten year old, who thought they’ d sussed out most of the evil in the world, only to reach that chapter, and have my pessimism shifted and subtly, forever deepened by what I’ll only refer to as the “cupboard incident”.

Goodnight Mr Tom

Goodnight Mr Tom

When I started volunteering at Rape Crisis, I’d spent three years studying feminist theory, protesting about safer streets, and analysing articles detailing a culture of violence towards women. Although I’d read about the depravity of rape, in hearing actual women’s voices I felt in the pit of my gut, more deeply aware of that suffering.

Today was another shift again. But along with this added depth of pessimism, I surprisingly felt less cynical. I felt another edge to the shift in my consciousness, a parellel towards the optimism of possibility. Along with genuine, caring support staff, and stories of recovery, there’s plenty of hope to be had. The women of Palmer House have already demonstrated their resilience, their capability for joy, and their desire to share an amazing story. I want to stick around to hear them.

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