Helping Others
1:00 am
Mon July 21, 2014

Missouri Shelters, Facing Staggering Demand, Turn Abuse Victims Away at Ratio of 2 to 1

Her body badly bruised, Joan Sisco, 62, of Springfield, is staying at temporary shelters for homeless women Safe to Sleep and Respite Care--that's because she couldn't get in to the domestic violence shelter, Harmony House, which is full. She was eager to share her story and her photo in the hope that it would help others.
Her body badly bruised, Joan Sisco, 62, of Springfield, is staying at temporary shelters for homeless women Safe to Sleep and Respite Care--that's because she couldn't get in to the domestic violence shelter, Harmony House, which is full. She was eager to share her story and her photo in the hope that it would help others.
Credit Jennifer Davidson, KSMU

62-year-old Joan Sisco of Springfield is doing her best to get comfortable on a donated couch.   But her attempt is futile: her upper body is mostly purple and brown from her boyfriend’s July 4 attack. That’s the night she received multiple blows because she served another man a cup of coffee.

We’re at the Respite Care shelter for homeless women with medical needs, which operates under the umbrella of The Kitchen, Inc. Most nights, Joan’s either at Safe to Sleep, an overnight shelter for homeless women, or sleeping in her car behind a storage shed.

But she’s only recently homeless:  her husband of 36 years became violent last year, so she tried to make it on her own, but ended up evicted when she didn’t pay her electric bill. She drifted into a sexual relationship with a homeless man who was extremely possessive and violent.

This room, freshly painted by volunteers, is one of many at Harmony House that provides shelter to victims of domestic abuse.
This room, freshly painted by volunteers, is one of many at Harmony House that provides shelter to victims of domestic abuse.
Credit Harmony House facebook page

Eventually, she decided to start over at Springfield’s domestic violence shelter, Harmony House.  But when she called there, she got an unexpected response.

Sisco:  “They didn’t have room for me. They were out of room.”

Davidson:  “And what did they tell you?”

Sisco:  “They told me to keep calling. So I’ve been calling. There was supposed to be somebody leaving, but they didn’t leave. They stayed there. So that left me out, and I’ve been staying at the Respite House since I got out of the hospital from having a heart attack.”

Davidson: “So, whenever they said, ‘We don’t have room for you,’ what were your options?

Sisco: “My options [were] to stay with the guy who really badly bruised me or take off and go back home, but I didn’t have the money because the guy robbed me—and badly bruised me, from head to toe.”

Davidson: “Right when you were turned away from the Harmony House domestic violence shelter, where did you go that next day?”

Sisco:  “Back on the street.”

Sisco says she called four or five times. Each time came the same answer: no room.

My options [were] to stay with the guy who really badly bruised me or take off and go back home, but I didn't have the money because the guy robbed me.
-Joan Sisco, Springfield

Zak Wilson is a spokesman for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, which provides resources for most of Missouri’s domestic violence shelters.

“Last we year, we had 10,279 individuals, so that’s women, children, and men, receiving safe shelter, while also though during that time period 21,193 were turned away because shelters were full,” said Wilson.

That’s over 21,000 times last year that Missouri abuse victims were told, “Sorry, no room,” at perhaps the most vulnerable moment in their lives. This is the first time that the ratio of those turned away to those actually sheltered went above two-to-one, Wilson said.

"There's some times in that number that someone was turned away from a shelter, say, in St. Louis, but then the St. Louis shelter was able to connect with the shelter in Rolla, and get them to go to Rolla, but still technically they were turned away from that shelter because it was full,” said Wilson.

Many, like Joan, are ending up homeless.

Over at Harmony House, the room where the hotline calls come in is bustling with activity. A mother is worried about her baby’s fever, and a staff member is fielding another phone call.

Brittney Walker is outreach coordinator here.

“Last year, we were able to shelter just under 600 women and children who were survivors of domestic violence. But we had to turn away about 1,600,” Walker said.

When those women and children are turned away, it’s Walker’s job to try to help them in other ways.

Last year, we were able to shelter just under 600 women and children who were survivors of domestic violence. But we had to turn away about 1,600.
-Brittney Walker, Harmony House

"We try to seek other options, as far as housing. We’ll talk about if they can stay with a friend or family member or use some of the other resources in the area, like Safe to Sleep, or overnight temporary shelters. We talk about Isabel’s House if they have children,” Walker said.

Most of the women are calling here secretly, and many have been purposely isolated from friends and family for years—a common tactic among abusers.

Harmony House says it tries to walk victims through a safety plan over the phone, and offers a court advocate to help them file an order or protection.  In tomorrow’s segment, we’ll visit this shelter again to learn more about those efforts. But there’s nowhere near enough space or resources to meet the staggering demand.

Back at the Respite House, Joan Sisco is warming up a lukewarm cup of coffee in the microwave. She’s recovering from a heart attack and pneumonia. And her severe bruises will heal—but I want to know about her emotional scars. Over the course of our two hour interview, I ask her seven times to tell me about her good qualities. Each time, her answer was limited to a variation of this:

“Both of my husbands said I was a good kisser and lover. And [my boyfriend] did love my boobs. He loved my sex and everything,” she said.

The men in her life—two husbands and one boyfriend, as well as her abusive father—have taught her that women are only valuable for their sexuality, a message often reinforced in popular culture. Joan has used sexual favors to guarantee her safety multiple times.

She tells me her husband of 36 years “never tried to control” her. And yet, as our interview goes on, she reveals that he got angry when she wore certain types of clothes, belittled her for her weight, physically hurt her, expected her to bless his extra-marital affairs, and was unemployed for most of the marriage while demanding that she work—all forms of control.

Joan and thousands of women like her across Missouri are in desperate need of regular counseling. The Victim Center in Springfield offers free counseling for people affected by trauma, including domestic violence. But many across the state are unlikely to get counseling if they can’t even make through the doors of a domestic violence shelter.

(KSMU Intern Jeremiah Gill contributed to this report.)