We talk to Ritter Center General Case Manager, Islam Ayyad about how she brings her life story to her work helping clients find shelter, access rental assistance, manage benefit funds, and rebuild their lives.
“It is striking that in name and appearance alone in this field, I can raise awareness by merely existing as myself.”- Islam Ayyad
Islam Ayyad is A Ritter Center General Case Manager. She works with clients who need support to manage funds, obtain shelter, provide rental assistance, and other valuable resources.
How does your life story relate to your work?
As a Muslim Palestinian woman, I had all these stereotypical odds against me. In my community, it was frowned upon to want a career outside the home, even a career that is focused on helping people such as social work. I wanted to do it despite those cultural struggles. I believe that what I want to do is more important, in terms of helping people, than the artificial barriers and limitations placed upon me. I’m doing this not only for myself, but to lay the groundwork for other women to be inspired to do community work and to excel in their careers to help others. We can’t be afraid of repercussions in the community. It is important to serve as a role model for other women, because this issue is specific to a lot of communities, not just Muslim communities.
Having the name Islam and wearing a hijab in the public eye is always something that makes me visible in a different way when first meeting people. They are genuinely surprised at what I do in social work and that I work with a vulnerable population.
It is striking that in name and appearance alone in this field, I can raise awareness by merely existing as myself.
My parents were typical in my community of wanting me to become a doctor or a lawyer. My parents didn’t understand my drive to do social work. They were concerned about the mission and the pay levels. Their feelings were coming from their own economic struggles as immigrants. They wanted ‘better’ for me, but I know what I do is invaluable, important work and rewarding.
I am helping pave the way for my sister and other women in society to do what they want. Best of all, I am doing it through my passion which is the desire to help others. This supersedes everything and I am grateful to be making a name for myself and growing as an individual while helping others.
Being Palestinian and Muslim was challenging growing up. I wrestled with an identity crisis, especially after 9/11. I had to contend with hate in society, but those experiences made me stronger and more resilient. It has honestly made me who I am today because of those struggles. In fact, those life experiences, which were horrible in some instances, made me want to work with those experiencing homelessness. The stereotypes placed on the homeless population that they are scary, violent, and lazy, limits the reality that they are just as human as you or me. They are not scary and you should not fear other people, especially those who need help.
There are many female staffers at Ritter. Tell us more about that.
The women working at Ritter Center are tough and inspiring people. When I was first hired, I saw how many women, especially women of color worked here, and that made me excited. I think that other women of color understand the need for women of color to hold positions like a case manager. When talking about working with vulnerable populations, it is also important to have employees from diverse backgrounds who are culturally relatable or speak the same language as our clients. It is a way for women of color to open up about the issues they face and what kind of help they would really need.
We are an example of women doing something positive for the community, such as helping people get into homes and pay their rent. It is such meaningful work.
What kind of misperceptions do people have about the homeless community?
The affluence of this county doesn’t mean there aren’t struggles here. When you think of Marin county, the first thought that crosses your mind probably isn’t that there is a homeless community. There is this myth that everyone on the streets came here from somewhere else but it simply just isn’t true. Many are living in Marin for more than 20 years and many come from Marin. The affluence of this county doesn’t mean there aren’t people struggling here.
Another misconception people have is that those that are homeless are on the street because they are lazy or uninterested in housing. That is not true. There are many reasons why a person can become homeless. Some that I have worked with were living paycheck to paycheck and could not afford the high cost of living in the bay area, forcing them to lose their housing. There are also issues relating to mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, and traumatic life events that greatly impact their life experiences. People experiencing homelessness aren’t seen as humans. They are somehow tragically seen as less than human and not worth the effort, and yet the truth is that they are people just like you and me. The only difference is that they have gone through more trauma than we have.
No one wants to be homeless. No one wakes up and actively chooses to do so.
What challenges do women living on the street face?
It is astonishing how homeless women are perceived and the interactions I’ve seen in my work. Women get taken advantage of a lot when they are just trying to survive. Women are vulnerable in a whole different way, and they can be taken advantage of at times. Homeless women face real fears like not being able to sleep on the street because they are worried they will be assaulted. They might take drugs, allowing them to stay up to protect themselves from harm or have their belongings stolen. That is their reality. So when people ask ‘why don’t they just stop doing drugs’ I have to point out that we can’t even begin to fathom what they battle every day.
The challenge to make yourself safe and secure on the streets is a 24/7 war.
Women experiencing homelessness know they are being taken advantage of in certain situations, but they may have no other choice. They know that they need protection and sometimes the cost of that is very high. If we stop to pause and unpack the vulnerability of women being seen as the weaker sex, we have to think about it relating back to simply what a man can do to a woman’s body. This situation puts more responsibility on women to take greater precautions. As a case manager, I want to empower women by connecting them to the right resources to help change their circumstances.
I want women to be seen, respected, and heard.
What is the impact of COVID on your work?
Perhaps a silver lining of COVID is a crack in the public lack of empathy for those experiencing homelessness. It may even come from something as basic as being out to run an errand and not being able to use the bathroom when all the bathrooms are closed due to the pandemic. People are more aware through the pandemic of how hard basic tasks can be. Also, more people are experiencing the fear of losing their homes, job loss, and an inability to pay rent. This is a small taste of the struggle but not at the level of those experiencing homelessness.
Another impact COVID has on my work is the increased need stemming from the pandemic. Those experiencing homelessness and at-risk of homelessness have fewer places to go for necessities like food, shelter, or even something small like a place to charge their phones. Our campus is only open a few days a week so when we are open, there may be a larger number of people seeking help. I also am aware that due to our hours of operations, it limits some access to services for those who do not have phones and are unable to call me on days I work from home. I understand that people may be frustrated and upset at the new procedures in place, but as a case manager working through this pandemic, it can at times overwhelming.
It has an impact on me because it feels like work is never ending and even though I want to help everyone, I come home exhausted and at times frustrated. The stories people tell me of not being able to pay for rent for more than four months, or sleeping outside in the rain due to limited shelter openings, saddens me. At times, I have to step back to remind myself that this is the work I signed up for and that there is still so much more that I can do.