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Danielle Cotten and her seven-month-old baby, Ashlyn, went from renting a house to homeless in a matter of hours. At 1:00 on a Monday afternoon, her electricity went off. It was in the middle of February, and about 30 degrees that day, she says. She contacted her landlord, who reminded her that her rent was late again.
“And then I texted him, and then we got into a heated argument, and then he kind of, like, I don’t know—said some things you shouldn’t tell a mother,” Cotten said.
A few weeks earlier, she had lost her job at a manufacturing plant--fired, she says, because her allergies were disrupting her job too much. Danielle and her boyfriend, Kevin, crashed at a friend’s house…but after a few days, came to the homeless shelter in West Plains: Samaritan Outreach.
Her baby Ashlyn plays with a rattle in a room full of about 15 other residents at the shelter. Cotten keeps to herself here, although she had to share a room with the mother of five-month-old twins. Her path to homelessness didn’t involve drugs or mental illness. But it did involve a string of broken relationships.
“I was seventeen. I moved in with a person I used to date, then we kind of fell out. And so I moved out, and then anybody I moved in with, I wound up moving out with—and he was the only place I could go,” Cotten said.
She has her high school diploma, and she’s passionate about fixing broken tech gadgets.
“I’ve actually fixed towers, monitors, iPods, phones. I threw my last one, and then I fixed it. And then I went and got a new one, because my motherboard was cracked,” Cotten said.
She and her boyfriend are going to apply for the state’s “Shelter Plus” program. It’s a housing program for people who are both homeless and disabled, sponsored by the Missouri Department of Mental Health.
People in the program sign their own lease with a landlord and pay 30 percent of their income toward their rent. The rest is paid for by local community housing agencies.
I ask her what her plans for the future are.
Cotten: “Well, go to school and get the heck outta here.”
Davidson: “How are you gonna do that, though, realistically? How do you plan to do that?”
Cotten: “I have no idea, really. I’m just trying to stay in the moment instead of planning stuff. Because planning never works for me.”
“Kevin—he has a disability with his back, so he’d pretty much stay home so I could do that. But the money thing, I have no idea…the only thing I know is to try to get grants, or whatever,” Cotten said.
There are scores of families who fall under the definition of homeless across the Ozarks. The Missouri Hotel, a Springfield shelter operated by The Kitchen, has several families at any given time. The Salvation Army runs its “Family Enrichment Center” and “New Start Housing,” which try to re-introduce homeless families to a stable housing setup.
In rural areas, the homeless often face additional challenges, like a lack of public transportation. This makes it harder to find a job.
Becky Perez is the project director at Samaritan Outreach. She says besides transportation woes, another difficulty homeless parents face is child care.
"They don’t qualify for state aid with child care. And if they come here, they have to watch their own children. We can’t let any of our other residents watch their children,” Perez said.
“I personally would be hesitant to hire someone who came into my business with one, or two, or three children, looking for a job. Because to me, that says, ‘They don’t have child care. They’re going to call in a lot,’” Perez said.
Perez says some of the children in the shelter right now are homeschooled. The kids staying in shelters, she says, deal with a lot of embarrassment, and sometimes shame. She recalls one eight-year-old girl who was obsessed with the idea of sleepovers.
“One time, in the several weeks they were here, she got to stay at a friend’s house. But she could never invite anybody over to her house…because they don’t have a house,” Perez said,
Conflict also erupts, Perez says, when older residents try to tell parents how to raise their children. Residents in a homeless shelter are dealing with heavy stuff—often, depression, addiction, and other crises. Children witness a lot of that.
[Sound: Baby rattle]
Danielle Cotten says she’s getting out of here so her daughter doesn’t have to deal with that.
“You know, I’ve had people tell me I’m a bad mom because I’m in a homeless shelter, and da-da-da-da-da, and that I deserve better, and that Kevin’s a bad guy, and la-la-la-la-la. But really, it’s not all that bad. I mean, it could be so much worse. You could be in a sleeping bag out on the street. That’s the bottom of the barrel for me. For some people, the homeless shelter is the bottom of the barrel," Cotten said.
I’m Jennifer Davidson.