Helter Shelter

At the Women Helping Women shelter, battered women got the runaround. They got treated like second-class citizens. They got evicted. What they didn't get was help.

When Jennifer Franklin's boyfriend found out that she and her four children were staying at a battered women's shelter in Pasadena, she decided it was time to leave. After all, he'd threatened Franklin with a gun, gotten her four-year-old drunk, thrown a TV through the wall and driven her to a remote spot and forced her out of the car, then wheeled off. When he was drinking, violence was always a possibility.

Fortunately, Franklin had another option -- Women Helping Women. The northwest Houston nonprofit run by founder Faye Turner specializes in job training and also operates a shelter for battered women. In May, one of the organization's staff members had come to Pasadena to discuss the jobs program, and Franklin had talked to her about enrolling.

So in June, when Franklin's caseworker suggested a move to the relatively distant Women Helping Women shelter, the change seemed a good idea. Women Helping Women had a reputation as an effective job-training organization and had won one of President Bush's Points of Light awards. Not only would Franklin be far away from her batterer (the shelter is at the organization's office just off FM 1960), but she would have access to the many services WHW promises: free food and clothing, child care, job placement assistance and transportation.

But those services never materialized. "I never got any assistance while I was there," Franklin says. "We bought our own food. They couldn't help me with child care. Basically, I was on my own."

At Women Helping Women, Franklin harbored concerns about her safety. The other shelters she'd stayed in had tight security, with cameras, steel doors and strict policies for staff, residents and guests to follow. Women Helping Women's security measures, on the other hand, consisted of an alarm that didn't work. People freely wandered in and out of the two-story house throughout the day.

Moreover, Franklin and her family felt like second-class citizens, even compared to the many community service workers who provided free labor as part of their parole or probation agreements. The staff insisted that her children either stay outside or remain virtually silent while indoors so as not to disrupt the organization's daily dealings. "We were treated like we were in their way," Franklin says. "We felt completely uncomfortable."

Within a week, Franklin was told to move out. She says Women Helping Women director Faye Turner wanted the family gone because they were costing too much money: The organization had won a $50,000 grant through the Harris County Precinct 4 Constable's Office that paid for shelter and counseling services, but WHW would not get the money unless the victims were referred by that law enforcement agency. Franklin had come from another shelter, not the constable's office. "Faye told me that since Precinct 4 wasn't paying for me to be there, I had to leave," Franklin says.

Women Helping Women employee Kim Kelly faxed a letter to the Press claiming that Franklin was asked to leave after violating a number of house rules, including coming in after curfew on "several occasions" and letting her sister know the location of the shelter. "She was never told she had to leave because Precinct 4 had not referred her," Kelly wrote.

But Franklin denies she broke the rules, a claim backed by the other two women living in the house at the time -- Lisa Thomas, who had been referred by Precinct 4, and Joyce Bicki, the live-in housemother who left for good last week after two months of frustration. "Jennifer didn't break no rule other than that she didn't meet Faye's requirements," Bicki says.

Bicki's departure makes her the third housemother that the shelter has lost in its short life (Women Helping Women bought the building last October and opened the doors in January). The live-in position, required under the terms of the grant with the constable's office, is being filled temporarily by Turner and other volunteers until the next replacement can be found.

Compared to other shelters in the region, Women Helping Women's shelter seems substandard in almost every way. The staff has almost no professional training in the battered women's field. Services are practically nonexistent. The security, which Jennifer Franklin was accused of breaching, was considered a farce by the residents (though after the Press inquired last week, a working alarm was finally installed and activated). The shelter's address was even published in the 1960 Sun, a local community newspaper.

Asked about these issues, Turner and her staff offered a variety of explanations, often contradictory. The alarm always worked, Turner said when first asked, it was just that Bicki couldn't manage to arm it. Later, after Kelly had been unable to activate the alarm as Press photographer Nicole Fruge stood by, Kelly said that Turner had changed the codes while she was on vacation and hadn't yet given the staff the new numbers. She also claimed that she'd gotten it to function later by randomly pressing buttons on the keypad, then disarmed it the same way.

Bicki, who witnessed the incident, disputes all those stories. "That is a joke," she says, laughing. "The alarm did not work."

Other stories didn't add up, either. The morning that Bicki left, Kelly denied any knowledge of her departure to the Press, even though Bicki, her son and her friend say they bade farewell to Kelly before their exit. "I gave her a hug," says Bicki, "we said our good-byes, I said I love you, voila." Later, Turner faxed a note admitting that Bicki had moved out and taken her belongings.

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