St. Louis ‘safe houses’ shelter homeless women, families
ST. LOUIS (AP) – Every day after Sanita Parnell gets her five older children ready for school, she calls St. Louis‘ homeless hotline, applies for jobs or reaches out to state agencies, trying to end her family’s homelessness while watching after her 1-year-old son.
When she asks about emergency shelter for her family, she’s used to hearing the same refrain.
“‘We don’t have space for a family of seven,’” Parnell quotes. “That’s what I get tired of hearing. Every time I call a shelter, ‘We don’t have room for a family your size.’ I get so tired. … On the day we got evicted, we didn’t even leave. We didn’t have nowhere else to go.”
Parnell and her children, ages 10, 9, 7, 5 and 1, are among several families who have found temporary lodging at one of three homes provided as a sort of last resort for homeless women by New Life Evangelistic Center. Women are encouraged to search for jobs and longer-term housing while they stay at the safe house for two weeks, though some women stay longer.
Parnell’s family has been without a permanent address since being evicted from their St. Louis home several months ago. They have bounced around, sleeping at Parnell’s sister’s home, and then moving to a hotel when tension got too high, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
Parnell said she had to stop working two months ago after her brother was hospitalized and was no longer able to watch her infant son while she worked.
She’d stay at a city shelter, but she’s leery of them, having heard rumors that her few possessions might get stolen. So far, Parnell said, living in one of New Life’s “safe houses” in north St. Louis County with other homeless women and children has been a largely positive experience.
At three safe houses specifically for homeless women around the St. Louis area, the women have access to kitchens where they can cook for themselves and their children. The house where Parnell is staying can be lively with the sounds of eight children playing, but the mothers co-parent and watch out for one another.
In the afternoons, several of the women meet at a designated location downtown to be picked up by a van and transported to the houses for the night. It’s a temporary solution while the women sort out more permanent housing.
The Rev. Larry Rice, director of New Life, said it’s crucial to meet the demand for emergency space for women in the city.
Rice and his ministry have been the subject of controversy since operating a shelter out of his property on Locust Street that drew complaints from neighbors and was cited for code violations. The shelter closed by order of the city last year.
But Rice’s ministry is still offering many services to the homeless, such as the safe houses for women. Rice said the shelters “try to be” within occupancy permit requirements of the municipalities they are in, which limits the number of unrelated individuals allowed to reside in one house.
“We’re taking steps to get a fourth house open and bid on a fifth house,” Rice said. “We’re full . and this is so critical for these women because there are so many.”
Mary Harrison, 69, lives in another of the safe houses in Cahokia. She has slept on the street and said she has had her few possessions stolen dozens of times.
“There’s people out here with all kinda degrees,” Harrison said. “It’s everybody in life, not just a poor person without an education. It’s people with skills (but) they won’t hire you if you’re homeless. . I have never in my life seen as many hungry people as I’ve seen in the city of St. Louis, and it upsets me and makes me angry.”
In St. Louis, there are about 10 shelters that serve women, city officials said. Of those, some are specific to victims of domestic violence or pregnant women, and most of the shelters serve families. Currently, emergency shelters in the city have about 363 beds for women and families, Director of Human Services Irene Agustin said.
In January, a census estimated the city’s homeless at 949, with 97 on the street. Of those, 355 homeless were women, 20 of whom were unsheltered. The number of homeless has decreased since last year, Agustin said, and the city receives federal grant funding to help the homeless get rehoused.
“For us to have the ability to be successful in housing, someone requires us to have a good partnership with the housing community,” Agustin said. “Our biggest challenge is identifying safe and affordable homes.”
But getting into those homes can be a long process, as Terry Tipton knows. Tipton and her son have been homeless for several months. They slept in her car in Springfield, after she broke things off with an abusive partner. Tipton and her son are now staying in the safe house with Parnell’s family. Domestic abuse is one of the most common factors that can throw women into homelessness, Agustin said.
“The emotions of (homelessness) are pretty hard,” Tipton said. “The first night we were in the car, (my son) looked at me and said, ‘I’m so tired, Momma, what are we going to do?’ – and I literally at that point didn’t know.”
At one point, Tipton said her car was stolen, and along with it her and her son’s birth certificates and other important documents. (Parnell said she had a similar experience losing crucial documents.)
Finding work while not having a permanent address has proved tricky and full of stigma, Tipton said.
“I used to do nothing but work, until I had a child,” Tipton said. “(But) when you go to somebody now, they want you to start back down at the very bottom shoveling crap if you have to, and they look at you like you’re crap. The whole world is just like, ‘Oh, my god, you’re homeless.’”
For now, Tipton said, she’s working with New Life, training to drive a second van to transport homeless women to safe houses.
Staying with her family and Parnell’s is Linda Russell, a woman who’s been homeless for two years and who volunteers full time with New Life, and Audrey Jennings and her 12-year-old son, who for a while slept on MetroLink trains because she couldn’t afford rent on her paycheck from her food service job. Her two other children are staying with their father while Jennings figures things out.
“I live for (my kids),” Jennings said. “It makes me work harder, it motivates me. I feel like it was just tearing me apart – I couldn’t let my kids be on the street, especially my two youngest.”
Parnell is staying focused on her kids and the future, when she hopes to have a real home for them. In recent days, she’s had trouble getting food stamps, but the other women in the safe house have stepped up to share what little they have.
Her children tell her that when they’re grown, they’ll buy her a house and a car.
“I would just say this is a lesson for me to make sure to stay on top of everything to never end up (here again),” Parnell said. “I wouldn’t wish this on anybody. . You never know. It’s easy to get into this situation. Very much easy.”