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(This Sense of Community report first aired on KSMU March 26, 2013).
About two years ago Romona Baker, Resource Coordinator for Homeless Services at the Council of Churches of the Ozarks, received a number of inquiries--all around the same time--that made her realize there was a major problem in the Ozarks that was not being addressed.
ROMONA: “I had calls from several women who were suddenly without a place to stay, and they were asking me where to HIDE(!)... and I had no idea. We just needed a place for women to get in at night—that there was no place for a homeless woman to get inside unless she had money to get a motel room.”
That’s when the Council of Churches opened “Safe to Sleep,” an emergency overnight shelter specifically to provide a safe place for homeless women to stay at night. Located in the gym at Pathways United Methodist Church in north Springfield, the shelter is open from 7:30pm until about 8:00am the next morning, after which the women must leave until that evening, taking all their belongings with them. On a typical night Romona Baker says the shelter houses around 20 to 30 women of all ages and a wide variety of backgrounds. Heather Herman, a quiet, articulate 30-something woman, had been staying at Safe to Sleep for a couple of weeks when I talked to her. Her story involves substance abuse and a physically abusive relationship.
RANDY: Where are you from originally?
RANDY: How did this situation come about for you?
HEATHER: I had a bad relationship that went south... and I had to leave the situation. So I ended being homeless and came to the shelter.
RANDY: How long have you been homeless?
HEATHER: For about two weeks and two days.
RANDY: So this is a very recent—
RANDY: --event, although what’s been happening to you has probably been going on for quite some time.
HEATHER: I’d say about three months.
RANDY: And what sorts of things were involved?
HEATHER: A lot of alcohol... a lot of drug use... just a lot of lying and deception. There was alcohol use on my part... there was some violence, some physical violence. It ended up with me having black eyes and stuff like that.
RANDY: How long were you in the relationship before...
HEATHER: About 8 months. Yeah... I met the guy at a bar, so that didn’t really help! I graduated high school in 1994. I took a year of college in Colorado. I’ve had a lot of jobs, selling cars, stuff like that. Just had a job recently, lost it because of the alcohol—because I was homeless and started drinking heavily.
RANDY: How long have you been sober, then?
HEATHER: I’m actually going on 35 days. I actually was three times over the legal limit, went to the hospital, and the hospital sent me to One Door, and One Door told me about Safe to Sleep. They did an assessment on me, and told me where to go, and I came here and I’ve been here for two weeks.
RANDY: Heather is taking an AA class set up by the Council of Churches to help her deal with her alcohol abuse.
RANDY: Did you ever see yourself having to be in a situation like this?
HEATHER: No, never. This is, uh... it was unexpected, and I was scared for the first couple of days. It gets a little bit easier, but the feeling of not having somewhere to go and not having your own place kind of bears down on you and makes it really rough.
RANDY: Now, how long do you think you’re going to end up staying here? Do you have any idea?
HEATHER: I’ve been looking for another place with my grandfather’s help. I would say I’ll be homeless for another two weeks to a month.
RANDY: Do you have family around here?
HEATHER: I don’t—most of my family is in Colorado. My grandfather that lives here will not let me stay with him because I have abused alcohol for... many times. And every time I say I’m going to quit, I end up going back. And they’re way too old to deal with it, so....
RANDY: Heather has nothing but good things to say about her experience at Safe to Sleep.
HEATHER: They counsel us if we ever have problems—they talk to us all the time... give us a place to stay, they give us food, they give us showers... all the accessories we need for hygiene. They give us clothes, they bring in stuff for us that’s donated... it’s a very nice place. I feel safe here. I come here at night-time, don’t feel like I’m going to be out in the cold or anything like that. And I get to talk to the other girls about things that are going on in the community and jobs that are available. So yeah... they’re doing all they can to help us, and so it helps.
RANDY: So your plans for the future are just basically to get out of here and get back on your feet.
HEATHER: Get a job, get back on my feet, either share a place with somebody or get my own place, whichever comes first.
RANDY: Heather Herman has had many types of job experiences—everything from being a receptionist at a legal firm to bartending to working for a carnival (!). Right now she’d just like simply to be working somewhere, and be self-reliant. Eventually she may go back to school, she says, to study chemistry or biology.
RANDY: Where would that take you, then?
HEATHER: I don’t know—when I was little I wanted to become a wildlife biologist... but I think just, microbiology or something like that, and just find out better ways to help people... and develop new things.