Shelter For Homeless Women In St. Louis Continues To Grow: 'I've Come A Long Way'
Last March, DeeAnn Phillips moved from a rural area of Illinois into a tent encampment near the Mississippi River in St. Louis — a jarring experience that left her feeling frightened and isolated.
“It was such a culture shock,” said Phillips, who relied on donated food and supplies brought to the camp by outreach volunteers. “You can’t really take care of your health when you’re down there.”
After a few weeks, she made her way to St. Patrick Center in downtown St. Louis and connected with staff from the Women’s Night Program.
Dating back to the late 1980s, the program provides housing and long-term support for homeless women struggling with mental health issues, substance abuse and domestic violence. Dwindling funds have put the shelter in a precarious position in recent years, but an influx of federal support is allowing it to expand its capacity from 20 women at a time, now up to 30.
The program has been completely full during the pandemic, said manager Brandy Cheatham. Last spring, residents moved from a shared living space at St. Patrick Center into individual rooms at a former St. Louis convent and nursing home known as Little Sisters of the Poor to self-isolate.
“It didn’t matter if someone left; the next day, we had someone else coming in,” Cheatham said.
To expand operations, St. Patrick Center received just over $435,000 in coronavirus-related emergency funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in October. The funds will cover the cost of running the Women’s Night Program through next February.
An additional $229,000 in grant funding financed the renovation of the second floor of St. Patrick Center, which can now house up to 30 women — half in private, dorm-style rooms.
Unlike other shelters in St. Louis, the program focuses specifically on high-needs women experiencing homelessness who may struggle to find support elsewhere. In 2019, 88% of residents were suffering from mental illness, and half had substance abuse disorders.
Many of the women arrive at the shelter after experiencing violent attacks, Cheatham said.
“As a woman on the street, they are more vulnerable than a man,” she said. “A lot come in from the hospital, because they were on the street and someone clubbed them over the head to take their purse. Without that safety, they’re not going to make it.”
Speaking at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Wednesday, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones called the program an “essential asset for the safety and protection of women in the city of St. Louis.”
Supporting vulnerable women experiencing homelessness is “a preventive approach to public safety,” Jones added, rather than a strategy that relies on arrest and incarceration.
In addition to housing, the Women’s Night Program offers case management and counseling, job training, health care and help finding permanent housing. Some women are able to move out in a few months, while others need more time, Cheatham said.
“I say to them: When I send you out, I want you to have a nest egg; I want you to know how to budget,” she explained. “That is my goal, to make sure when you leave here, you leave prepared. I want to see you come and visit and tell me your success story down the road. But I do not want to see you here in six months.”
DeeAnn Phillips is eagerly planning her next move, after more than a year with the Women’s Night Program. For months, she worked with staff to secure copies of her birth certificate and Social Security card, along with health care.
Phillips hopes to be able to move into her own apartment within a few months — even though the other shelter residents feel like family to her.
“I’ve come a long way since last year, and now I’m able to help others that come in here,” she said. “I know how difficult it can be to transition and how scary it can be. We take care of each other.”
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