Homeless Women Displaced By Pandemic Face Greater Chance Of Harm Than Men

Dec 10, 2020

Laura Schaeffer says she tries to find a warm place to stay on cold nights, even if it's an abandoned home.
Credit Jennifer Moore / KSMU

On the cold morning of Monday, November 23, Laura Schaeffer was at a drop-in center for the homeless in central Springfield. The National Weather Service confirms the temperature dropped to 28 degrees overnight, but Springfield’s two emergency cold weather shelters did not open.

“I cannot disclose where I was [last night]. But it was in a community that fights for all kinds of things, including your life,” she said.

Schaeffer said violence erupted at the first location. One man ended up in the Emergency Room, she said.

“I did have some heat in a place that had some electricity, which is rare, twice,” she said.

Schaeffer says she moved to a second spot in the wee hours of the morning—to a “bando,” slang for an abandoned house or building.

“There are some owners of their ‘bandos’ that will give permission for you to, you know, do your thing there,” Schaeffer said.

Women, transgender homeless in Springfield more likely to experience harm

Two unidentified individuals receive coffee from an outreach team at a homeless camp under a bridge in Springfield.
Credit Jennifer Moore / KSMU

  

Schaeffer, originally from St. Joseph, Missouri, says she once had a good job in a Kansas City hospital before she experienced trauma and other struggles she doesn’t disclose.

Women and transgender individuals in Springfield’s most recent homeless point-in-time survey were more likely to report having been harmed while homeless than men.

That 2020, federally-mandated count earlier this year found 247 individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness—and about 23 percent of them were women. 

43 percent of the homeless participants in that survey reported having been a victim of domestic violence –and of those, nearly one in seven indicated that they were currently fleeing a violent situation.

Schaeffer says she’s been sexually assaulted while homeless.

“I don’t know who it hasn’t happened to that I can think of,” she said.

Women's shelter reduces capacity, changes intake policy

Angel Walker was in downtown Springfield that same morning.

“Last night I spent the night at Safe to Sleep. But I was told on Friday that Safe to Sleep was full. So I slept in the park, Smith Park, in the tennis court to try to block the wind. So that's where I slept for one night,” she said.

That shelter she mentioned, Safe to Sleep, is the year-round, overnight shelter for women, operated by the Council of Churches of the Ozarks. From Walker’s perspective, it’s harder to get into that overnight shelter now.

“And it used to be where everybody came in and you could, you know, it was allowed. But now there's a list. And if you're not on the list, you don't get a place to stay,” Walker said.

She says she has not been sexually assaulted on the streets.

“I've been lucky.  But if anybody stops and ask a woman for a ride, there's always a second agenda,” Walker said.

At Safe to Sleep, Jessica Luraas coordinates volunteers and works with the guests.  She says the pandemic has changed things at the shelter—and that the new rules have been clearly communicated with the homeless community. 

“So now we had to put a limit of 20 guests who can come to their shelter. And we did that so that we could social distance them with their cots,” Luraas said.

She says Safe to Sleep also had to change its intake process to better control who’s coming and going to help prevent the spread of the virus.

“If it's their first time to ever come to Safe to Sleep, they have to go to One Door. And they do our intakes for us,” Luraas said, referring to the central place where people can seek help for a wide range of services related to homelessness. In Springfield, One Door is administered by the Community Partnership of the Ozarks.

“But One Door is only open during the day. And so prior to the pandemic, we actually had an emergency number that they could call. That was weekends and overnight. And we just we can't do that right now,” she said.

She said what’s been interesting—and unexpected—is that Safe to Sleep has not been full in recent weeks.

“So there may be a misconception that we have been full, but we haven't. Our average number has been 13 every night,” Luraas said.

Luraas said if a woman doesn’t stay at the shelter for consecutive nights, she can be removed from the list.  And to get back on the list, she’d need to go back to the One Door facility to sign up again—or perhaps call the shelter staff, which would be decided on a case-by-case basis—before she could get overnight shelter again.

That, too, is a new policy meant to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.  Shelters are at high risk for potentially catastrophic outbreaks of COVID-19.

But Angel Walker has neither a car nor a phone, so traveling back to that intake location or calling the shelter staff aren’t great options for her.

Luraas said Safe to Sleep saw its volunteers step back immediately for their own safety early in the pandemic.  And while case workers kept in touch with the homeless women, the shelter shut down its overnight service for three months, she said.  Safe to Sleep ended up hiring shelter staff, she said, and now has three paid staff members.

Before the pandemic, the average occupancy at the shelter was 35 women a night, Luraas said.

And initially, when the shelter temporarily closed its doors, some of those women found temporary shelter in local motels with help from the Community Partnership of the Ozarks, Luraas said.

But Luraas said she believes many of the women who sought shelter at Safe to Sleep before the pandemic are no longer in the motels. And based on current occupancy at the shelter, very few have returned to Safe to Sleep. She says that’s kind of a mystery right now: no one really knows where those unsheltered women have gone.

“I thought maybe there was some fear of coming to a shelter in a pandemic. I’m sure that plays a role, and they’re just figuring out other options. I really don’t know. We could never have predicted that, ever,” she said.

Some women choose to avoid the shelter because they have a partner or a pet they’re not willing to separate with for the night. 

“But the new population that we typically serve, I don’t know where they are. And that’s what’s interesting,” Luraas said.