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Tracy Frank, Published November 24 2013

Homelessness especially dangerous for women

MOORHEAD - Tami Lincoln grew up in an upper-middle-class family, has a college degree, and worked as a paramedic for 21 years.

Now she’s homeless.

The 49-year-old was married and lived in a nice lake home, she said. But a string of events changed everything.

“I got divorced and then just lost everything,” she said.

She was not self-sufficient at the time of her divorce, so she moved in with her mother, she said. Then her mom, grandma and a grandchild all died within six months.

After her mom died, Lincoln didn’t want to impose on friends or her three grown children, she said. She hasn’t even told her children she’s homeless.

“I just don’t want my kids worrying about me,” Lincoln said, adding that she’s embarrassed to tell them.

She started drinking heavily after the deaths of her family members, she said. And she spent a month sleeping in her car.

“I kind of just fell apart last year,” she said. “It was horrible, scary.”

She never knew where she could safely park her car so she wouldn’t get hurt or in trouble. She was often cold, and she always feared being attacked.

While sleeping on the streets is dangerous for anyone, the threat of sexual assault makes it especially risky for women, said Ann Leuthard, Churches United for the Homeless support services director.

Rather than risk rape, homeless women will often stay with a man they think is trying to help them and end up doing sexual favors in exchange for shelter, which is just another form of victimization, Leuthard said.

Because of the dangers to women on the streets, both Churches United and the YWCA Cass Clay offer overflow housing by allowing women to stay in conference rooms or other common areas.

“We don’t want them to have to choose between their dignity and safety,” said Jen Engquist, community center and member relations director for Churches United.

Engquist said more women are seeking help at the shelter, and more and more of them have college degrees.

Divorce, mental health issues and substance abuse can all lead women to become homeless, but the biggest factor is poverty, Engquist said.

A single mother with young children working a minimum-wage job cannot usually afford both housing and child care, she said.

Domestic violence is another big reason women become homeless. Last year, nearly 70 percent of the women served at the YWCA were there because of domestic violence, said Erin Prochnow, YWCA Cass Clay executive director.

“Someone will leave and take their kids, and they don’t know where to go,” said Angela McKibben, YWCA shelter services director. “Often they come to us after having slept in their car or doubled up with family or friends.”

Police will often refer women to the shelter, she said.

The last few years Leuthard has noticed that the majority of women who stay at Churches United are in their early 40s to mid-50s. Many have come from bad relationships or chemical addictions. And a lot of homeless women either have children or have lost custody of them, she said.

“When they come to the shelter they’ve already gone through traumatic experiences,” Leuthard said. “They’re running from these things with all this pain in their hearts and who do you run to?”

Lori DeFoe, a military veteran, has lived at Churches United since early September.

When DeFoe first became homeless in 2004 because of alcoholism and untreated mental health issues, neither she nor her husband worked, she said.

They would often camp, and though they lived outside, her husband kept her safe, DeFoe said.

There were times when bears would come quite close, but they never harmed her, she recalls.

“I’m more afraid of some people on the street than I am of bears,” the 57-year-old said.

After her husband died that same year, DeFoe moved from house to house staying with various relatives.

Now she’s working toward becoming independent and waiting for housing assistance.

“Very few people choose to be homeless,” she said.

Both Churches United and the YWCA have support programs to help women with mental health issues while the shelters help them find housing. Both offer some long-term housing.

Lincoln is waiting for housing in Church’s United’s Group Residential Housing program. She stopped drinking and had surgery on her foot to try to resolve health issues from a 2002 car accident so she can go back to work, she said.

Barbara Oglesby moved from Churches United into Gateway Apartments, owned and managed by Housing Redevelopment Authority of Clay County, three months ago.

The 53-year-old left a difficult home at age 17 and has been homeless off and on since.

“Many days there was nobody else but me and Jesus,” she said.

Oglesby said it’s still difficult to stay sober, but she’s been doing it for 14 years.

“I’m going to keep my house because I’ve been homeless forever,” she said.

As part of her housing arrangement and to keep busy, she volunteers in the shelter cooking meals once a week, hand-stamping thank-you notes, and reaching out to people in the shelter who are having a hard time.

Many homeless women are filled with guilt and shame and never imagined they would ever be in a homeless shelter, Leuthard said.

Lincoln is one of those women.

“I grew up in an upper-middle-class family and married into a wealthy family,” she said. “This has been a very humbling experience. It can happen to anybody. It’s really taught me a lot about not judging people because you never know. Anybody can be one paycheck away from being homeless.”

Women who are homeless live lives filled with constant stress and they don’t feel valued as a person anymore, Leuthard said.

“When you come in and you’re depressed you can’t even think about what your next step is because you’re too overwhelmed,” she said.

Lincoln has felt belittled and judged because of her homeless status, she said.

But many women who wind up homeless have had professional jobs, Leuthard said.

“There are just so many things that can happen and cause upheaval and send you spiraling,” she said.

Lincoln now looks at life differently, she said.

“I have a bigger and deeper respect for people,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot through this experience. It makes me want to help.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526