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(A short version of this Sense of Community report first aired on KSMU March 26, 2013.)
This afternoon you’ll meet another woman whose home life and personal circumstances have forced her into homelessness, spending her nights at the “Safe to Sleep” women’s shelter at Pathways United Methodist Church in Springfield. Sheila McDonald, originally from Kennett, Missouri, 20 miles from the Mississippi river in the Bootheel in Missouri, has an interesting—at times hair-raising—story to tell about how she ended up at the shelter, where she’s been since November of last year.
SHEILA McDONALD: Well, my situation started out-of-state. I met someone that had lots of money, and anyway it ended up where he tried to kill me, so I left and I came to Springfield... this was the worst person I’d ever met in my life... EV-ER! I didn’t even think I was going to be able to get away from him.
RANDY: How long ago was that?
SHEILA: This was two and a half years ago. But I’d met some people who said, “Come stay here,” you know, and then you’d go two or three months and stuff like that, so... I was staying somewhere and I had a really bad incident or thing happen to me, last November--two days before Thanksgiving. I almost died.
RANDY (quietly): Oh, good heavens! What happened?
SHEILA: Uh... antifreeze poisoning. They didn’t want to kill me, they just wanted to give me enough to... let me know that they meant business...
RANDY: This is the people you were living with?!
SHEILA: Yes, unfortunately.
SHEILA: After that, I was kinda just floatin’ around, trying to stay here and there and trying to stay warm.
RANDY: Did you find yourself on the street at any point?
SHEILA: Oh, I was on the street, yes. It was very cold out—it ended up being 14 degrees that night. But lucky for me I was down in a little concrete cubby-hole which kept the wind off of me, so that was a big blessing. And then I came to Safe to Sleep. I love it here because it’s helping me, because... well, here we go again (she gets choked up for a moment)... when I come in I know I can go to sleep at night and not have to worry about anything. Unfortunately, four days after I got here, I had left during the day and I went to cross the street—and I got hit by a truck! (chuckles) So I have a wheelchair, and so it’s just not been my year this year! (chuckles again)
RANDY: Well, I suppose you’d call that “laughing to keep from crying.” Sheila mentioned here wheelchair—she can walk, but only with difficulty. And the wheelchair helps her get around.
RANDY: So what do you do during the day, then?
SHEILA: Well, because of my situation I go to the Vet Center, and I just stay there from 8 to 4. I don’t walk very far—usually the only time I have to walk is when I walk from the Vet Center to the bus station.
RANDY: Are you looking for work, or what is your situation?
SHEILA: I’m not looking for work right now—I can’t because I’m not physically capable of it. But what I did is, I had started some stuff on the computer—way back when I first met this guy—and I’m back doing that now. So in time I’ll be back—I’ll be making money on the computer.
RANDY: Doing what?
SHEILA: Well, I’m doing, like, surveys and things like that. I’m just trying whatever I can—going back to what I know works.
RANDY: What’s your educational background?
SHEILA: I’ve got a little bit of college. And I’ve owned a business once, but I had... my family... whenever my family calls, I seem to run—and that’s where problems came in. (chuckle)
RANDY: Did you come from any kind of family situation with substance abuse or anything of that sort?
SHEILA (emphatically) No, no. Lord, no!
RANDY: Do you drink or use yourself?
SHEILA: (again with emphasis) No! My sister, unfortunately—one of my sisters, there were five of us—I got a phone call when I was 17: they found her unconscious in the girls’ bathroom. Somebody had given her some pills, saying “No, it’s ‘candy’! Go ahead and try it!”
RANDY: How old was she?
SHEILA: She was 15. When I went to the hospital and I’d seen how that made her react, I was like, “no, no... that’s not something that (chuckle) we deal with. I don’t put up with that very well.
RANDY: So what are your plans now?
SHEILA: I’m going to set up a yard sale-type business and then I’m going just to make money the best way I can, because I want to get into my own home—even if it’s just a trailer.
RANDY: How long do you think you’ll be staying here?
SHEILA: I really don’t know. It might be three, it might be four months. But I just want to get back on my feet and get out to where I can enjoy the life that I’m accustomed to. I like opening up my own door and going in and watching TV and taking my shower and stuff.
RANDY: In your own place.
SHEILA: What I call my “normal” life is what I want.
RANDY: Meanwhile, Sheila McDonald is very pleased with her experience at Safe to Sleep.
SHEILA: The biggest thing they provide is the... compassion... understanding. And, I mean, I love Romona, Jan, Alice, I just love all of ‘em. They’ve all been wonderful, especially after my accident. It’s... I guess, inexplicable. The best of the best is what I would have to say about Safe to Sleep.
RANDY: In the course of my visit to Pathways United Methodist Church and the Safe to Sleep shelter, I had a chance to talk at length with Romona Baker, a retired high-school science teacher who is now Resource Coordinator for Homeless Services at the Council of Churches of the Ozarks, the agency that operates Safe to Sleep.
RANDY: How long have you operated this facility?
ROMONA BAKER: We opened in October of 2011. We opened at the Kind Place—the Kitchen gave us an apartment, and we had six cots to start with. And the idea was that 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. She might get on a waiting list, but those waiting lists were long, and it might be a long wait. 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’ve been at two other churches—not kicked out of each church, but simply rotating as the use of the church builds up during the summer or whatever. We’ve been at East Sunshine, and we’ve been at Schweitzer United Methodist.
RANDY: How long have you been here?
ROMONA: We’ve been here now almost six months—and we were here last winter about that long.
RANDY: You mentioned when it first started you had had half-a-dozen cots. Now how many women are typically here?
ROMONA: We have—I’m not sure what we had last night [interview took place March 6, 2013]—about 20, 22. We’ve been up to 35 as our highest. It varies from 32 to 28, I’d say, most commonly.
RANDY: And how long do women generally end up staying here before they’re able to move on and get on with their lives?
ROMONA: It’s so unpredictable. We’ll have numerous women who stay one night—they’ve gotten out of the hospital and their family’s picking them up tomorrow. We have others who have been with us for months at a time. They’re simply in a situation—sometimes they’re older, they have very limited income, they’re not able to get an apartment, no job—
RANDY: Health problems...
ROMONA: Yes, many with health problems. We actually had one of our residents that died two nights ago in a skilled-nursing (facility)—we’d finally gotten her inside. But we have older women, and down to (age) 18.
RANDY: The two women that I talked to, are they fairly typical of the kind of women that you see coming through here?
ROMONA: I think they are—and I could say, “no, they aren’t typical,” because there is no “typical.” We have people that are between jobs; we have people who are fighting addiction; we have people that are sick. Probably one of the largest commonalities is just mental health issues, so that they have something that’s, at this point in their life, making it difficult for them to function. It makes it hard for them to get a job, or just even be with family perhaps. The other commonality is probably that they don’t have family in the area, or that it’s very dysfunctional.
RANDY: Are many of them “chronically” homeless, or does it seem like—the two that I talked to, it’s a fairly recent phenomenon for both of them.
ROMONA: There are a few that are “chronically” homeless, and those—you might think of that as, you know, I tend to think of the posters of the “bum on the street.” You might think of that as the “woman bum”... and yet they aren’t. They may be people who choose (to live on the street) because of mental-health issues, probably, because getting a job is just out of their reach, either from physical disability.... Some of them have disability checks coming in, but it’s not enough to live on—it’s not enough to get a place to live.
RANDY: Which is the very definition of “homelessness”, is not being able to afford your own place.
ROMONA: That’s right. And so, to be able to stay here is simply... it’s a lifesaver for them.
RANDY: How is this place funded? You know, what keeps it going?
ROMONA: We have operated now almost a year and a half, and we’ve operated on approximately $100 cash per week during that time! If you think of keeping 30 women for 13 hours a day, every day, for the last year and a half, for that... and that has come—
RANDY: And that’s not per person, that’s—
ROMONA: No, that just our (overall weekly) expenses. Now, we couldn’t operate without all of the donations that are given to us.
RANDY: Where do those come from?
ROMONA: There are a number of churches that help us—one helps us with gasoline; one helps us with almost all of the snacks that we provide. We don’t really serve “meals,” and yet Schweitzer United Methodist Church provides what they have. Sometimes we have yogurt, sometimes we have frozen waffles; often we’ll have meat and cheese. And we buy bread. Crosslines provides us with milk. Central Christian Church fills up our van tank—we provide transportation for the women.
RANDY: So is this basically the only women’s shelter of its kind in Springfield?
ROMONA: Yes, it is. Now there are shelters, but they’re “project” shelters, so that the woman can live there (fulltime, as opposed to just staying in overnight as with Safe to Sleep). Then they’re expected to work with a caseworker, work on their G.E.D., work on finding a job, that sort of thing. But this (Safe to Sleep) is the only place simply to get in for the night. Now, of course, our women can’t get in until 7:30(pm), and at 7:30 in the morning they have to leave... and they take everything with them, there’s no storage for them. So that’s why, often, they have a backpack and a little suitcase.
RANDY: That’s why it’s called “Safe to SLEEP.”
ROMONA: That’s it—it’s a safe place to sleep. We try to provide just the necessities, enough to get by. But for them to walk in the door, I’ve heard them say “it’s like coming home at night.” It’s the one stable thing in their life. They have a cot, they have their sleeping bag. Most of them have a spot that they like in the gym to set up. And when we can get into the gym and set up, many of them get here at 7:30 or 8:00, and many of them are in bed by 9:00, because they’re exhausted from their day outside. As well as just the things that are given to us, and that’s specific things that we need—we get a lot of things we can’t really use—but the other thing that makes it operational is volunteers. We have 40 to 50 people who actually stay—we always have two volunteers overnight; at least one of them is awake all the time. And that’s tough for someone—they get about four hours’ sleep during night, if they’re lucky—and that’s on a cot! But if lost even ten of those [volunteers] we would shut down, because we have to have those volunteers. So we constantly need new people to fill in that need.
RANDY: So what can people do to help?
ROMONA: If they contact me for specific things we need—and that changes day to day, which means that we sometimes get things we can’t use. But we may need small-size panties today, and we may need winter socks tomorrow. We may have to go buy Kleenex ® because no one’s giving us any. Coffee—we use a lot of coffee!
RANDY: No doubt, no doubt!
ROMONA: So it changes day to day. And we love to get those things. But also, just cash allows us to go and buy the decaf coffee that we need today, and so that’s great. We get a lot of $10 and $20 checks. But twenty dollars is what we need for a day.
RANDY: Romona Baker, Resource Coordinator for Homeless Services with the Council of Churches of the Ozarks.To find out what items to donate to Safe to Sleep, or to make a financial donation, call the Council of Churches of the Ozarks ta (417) 862-3586 ext.225, or email Romona Baker at rbaker [at] ccozarks [dot] org. Their offices are located at the corner of Chestnut Expressway and Glenstone (627 N. Glenstone), and their website is www.ccozarks.org. For KSMU and the “Sense of Communty” series, I’m Randy Stewart.