Jenesse Center Offers Shelter from the Storm

Chanel, a petite African American woman with sleek hair and hazel eyes, trembles as she remembers the last time her husband beat her. He struck her with one chair and then another. “They broke on my body as I tried to hide my face…. When I went to the hospital, I thought, Now’s my chance. I’ve got to go. I’ve got to save me and my kids.”

Police escorted her to Jenesse Center’s Domestic Violence Intervention Program in South Los Angeles. More than 500 people pass through the doors each year, many of them suffering from “a state of lack,” as Angela Parker, the center’s director of training and programs, puts it. She notes that so many lack the basics: the education, health care, benefits, employment opportunities, housing stability and mental health services to build a successful, stable life.

Five women founded Jenesse Center in 1980 to address this deadly chasm. Each had been scarred by her personal experience of domestic violence, and together they sought to uplift other victims by providing such essentials as food, diapers and clothing. But incoming calls to their crisis hotline revealed that the most pressing need was for emergency shelter.

The most recent incarnation of Jenesse Center’s emergency shelter is the Fannie Lou Hamer house, which opened in 2001. It’s named for the 1960s civil rights activist who bravely fought for equal rights, despite nearly being beaten to death by Mississippi police.

The five-bedroom home is hidden in plain sight in a South Los Angeles neighborhood and accommodates 26 women and children who can stay for a month to a month and a half. (Men, who make up about 5 percent of Jenesse’s clients, are housed in area hotels and motels. One of numerous  sites for those in crises within the state, the shelter’s twin and bunk beds, along with its cribs, were among the more than 560,000 “bednights” that domestic violence programs in California provided for victims and their children in 2011. That same year, advocates answered more than 117,000 domestic violence hotline calls, according to the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence.

“What happens in the home bleeds out into the world in ways that are incredibly destructive,” says Parker. Statistics bear her out: The costs of intimate partner rape, physical assault and stalking in the United States exceed $5.8 billion a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and nearly $4.1 billion of that goes to direct medical and mental health care services.

Getting to work, for instance, can be made especially difficult—if not impossible—when your mate hides your keys, takes your transportation money or doesn’t show up to care for the children as promised. Some women lose their jobs because of absenteeism, says Parker. If they get “punched in the face or socked in the stomach, then they may call into work and say, ‘I came down with something.’”

“There are also costs for the partner committing the violence,” says Jeni Klugman, of the World Bank Group based in Washington, D.C. “They also have higher absenteeism, and loss of attention and productivity at work.”

Shelter from the Storms

Alice Brown manages Jenesse’s shelter and tends to those escorted there by police from two nearby precincts. Some clients arrive in the middle of the night, still bloody from their injuries.

“It makes you so sorry they have to experience that,” she says. “But [domestic abuse] is not going anywhere. Not with this economy where people get upset over small, foolish things.” In recent years, with the downturn in the economy, the center has seen a roughly 25 percent increase in the need for shelter.

Clients are understandably traumatized when they arrive, but “they can’t sit around,” says Parker. Their short, 30- to 45-day stay is intended to help set them on a new course.

“We have programming for them, chores they have to do, classes they have to take. We’re mirroring what life looks like: You’ve got to get to school, to get to work on time, to juggle the stressors in a healthy way,” she says.

Clients spend from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays at Jenesse’s Education Center, where they take vocational classes, have use of a computer lab and engage in mock job interviews. An upstairs clothing boutique serves as an interactive classroom, where women learn more about what to wear to an interview or job. At a second boutique off-site, they can take items of clothing to incorporate into a work wardrobe and be given a professional makeover in a salon and makeup room.

“We have daylong vocational education workshops where clients bring their résumés before people who work at various corporations,” says Parker. “So many [of our clients] have skills that they don’t think matter or are marketable. One woman was able to speak three languages, but thought it wasn’t a big deal.”

Clients who start to acquire skills get an increased sense of their value and experience a rise in esteem, Parker says. One person jotted this personal note to the staff: “I am so grateful that Jenesse understands the importance of financial empowerment. My ex left my son and me in complete financial ruin. My bank account was empty, my cell phone bill was over $400 and … there was no food in the house. I had nothing left, not even my sanity.” The center’s programs, she says, put her on more solid footing.

For every woman whom the shelter helps, unfortunately, there are many in need who shy away. Parker says that some people remain in abusive relationships out of concern that going to a shelter will be a harrowing experience. They fear they’ll land on a makeshift cot on a floor, sleeping next to someone scary. Family members can contribute to their reluctance to flee by suggesting the victim can’t make it on her own.

“‘You know he loves you, stay with him, he supports you,’  they’ll tell her,” Brown says. So one of Jenesse’s objectives is to address those fears. “We’re trying to redefine what it means [to be a shelter] in the 21st century,” Parker says.

At Jenesse’s longer-term apartment residences in South L.A ., women can stay up to two years, giving them time to save up, get established, find work, buy a car and move out on their own.

Jenesse’s Site A residence offers 16 one-bedroom furnished units for those with small families, while Site B, with a dozen two- or three-bedroom furnished apartments, is for those with five children or more. Actress Halle Berry took the reigns of Site A’s recent renovation. The Academy Award winner, who has been a benefactor and advocate of the center for many years, gave the apartments a fresh look with tasteful furniture, artwork and accessories that have the sophistication of a Pier 1 store.

Each apartment door in Site A not only has a number, but also a small silver plate with the name of an iconic African American woman etched into it, including tennis great Althea Gibson, author Maya Angelou and singer Tina Turner—the last two, like Berry, have spoken publicly about surviving domestic abuse.

Disproportionate Violence

While the core service Jenesse provides is shelter, it offers an array of other services as well. People in the Los Angeles zip codes that Jenesse serves are disproportionately exposed to crime and violence compared to other zip codes within the city, Parker says, referring to a Community Safety Scorecard project from 2011. Therefore, the center works to meet the unique needs of its population, taking into consideration social, economic and cultural factors.

Locally, the center reaches out to faith-based organizations to engage them in a conversation around domestic violence, while helping the churches develop a training manual to address issues within the flock.

Brown says that Jenesse accepts people that other shelters may not, including teenage boys, those battling substance abuse and some who may come in with a criminal record. “Those are the people we serve,” she explains.

Jenesse also serves those with thorny legal challenges, says Alyson Messenger, the center’s managing staff attorney. It runs three legal clinics—including one out of the Inglewood Superior Courthouse—and helps an average of 1,500 clients annually. The center also accepts community members who drop in for assistance. All the services are offered for free.

In addition, the center works closely to provide services for undocumented immigrants in abusive relationships. Many women and men feel trapped in violent relationships because of their immigration status, Messenger says. “It may be that someone undocumented is married to someone with legal residency, and they won’t petition for their mate to become legal; they use it against them.”

Victims may wonder: How can I support myself if I leave the relationship? If I’m not legally in the country? If I can’t work? What if my spouse reports me and I get deported and my children are left in the sole care of an abuser?

“We create a case plan that actually moves them toward self-sufficiency and independence,” says Parker. With new tools and heightened awareness, clients slowly begin to embark on a new trajectory, gradually taking the steps to care for themselves and their families.

The Next Generation

The idea that women have a right to live in a world without gender-based violence is relatively new. “Up until about 30 years ago, domestic violence was not considered a crime around the world,” says Klugman, who is director of gender and development for the World Bank, which issued report in May 2014 called Voice and Agency: Empowering Women and Girls for Shared Prosperity.

Studies show that boys raised in abusive homes become the next generation of batterers, while their sisters grow up to become the next generation of victims. “This can have a domino effect,” says Klugman, creating a “future loss in productivity, health and emotional fallout from [batterers’ and victims’] children and their children’s children throughout the world.”

Morgan Simon, 18, who has volunteered with Jenesse Center over the last few years, is trying to turn things around. The UCLA student learned about the center from another male teen volunteer while still in high school.

“I found it interesting that there were men helping out in domestic violence situations,” he says. “I realized that I could have an impact.”

He’s among a number of young men and women who, over the years, have attended Jenesse’s annual Youth Conversations conferences, which focus on engaging teens and young adults in peer-to-peer dialogue. They get advice on recognizing and exiting unhealthy partnerships; take a pledge not to engage in them; and learn to intervene, when possible, in situations where someone is being abused.

Parker refers to the 20 or 30 youth who have “graduated” from the center and go on to colleges around the country as alums of  “Jenesse University.”

It’s a way to “keep them involved,” she said. They include Simon, who recently facilitated a Youth Conversations at UCLA, teaming up with the university’s Campus Assault and Resource Education program (CARE), where 20 to 25 participants explored the meaning of dating violence and cyberabuse.

“We provided an open forum for them to speak about their experiences. [Some people were like] this was going on with me, and I didn’t even realize it. [UCLA] is really open to this issue,” Simon says of the administration. “I think they like working with a student on campus.” Sometimes administrators can’t get students to come out, he notes, but “I got all my friends to come out, athletes too—the people we’re trying to reach.”

This is the same population that President Obama is seeking to tap with his recently launched 1 is 2 Many initiative, which aims to reduce the alarming rate of sexual assault on the country’s college campuses. He created a task force earlier this year to address the finding from the Justice Department’s Campus Sexual Assault Study that 1 in 5 women will be assaulted during her time in college; some will graduate to abusive marriages.

“Jenesse University” alum Aaron Francis organized a Youth Conversations in Atlanta, where he’s a student. He called Parker last year to report that he’d seen evidence of dating violence on campus, and together they decided to host an event to bring traditionally male students from Morehouse, which Francis attends, and traditionally female students from Spelman, for a frank discussion on the Spelman campus.

“About 150 kids came out,” Parker says. “We thought this issue was so important to keep on the forefront.” The event got promoted by students who drew a black circle around one eye or blackened one eye with a makeup pencil, which became part of a Facebook campaign to promote the event.

Other “Jenesse University” grads are now spreading the message at their schools, says Parker, as the young people she’s coached begin to fan out across the country


X Close

Subscribe to Our Mailing List