by Allison Willingham, Lifestyle & Entertainment Columnist
Hanging on a bulletin board in the Activity Center at St. Lawrence Place, a quote from President Barack Obama has been printed onto construction paper: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
Surrounding this quote are colorful pieces of artwork done by the children who live at St. Lawrence’s Place, some drawn and shaded in crayons, some in colored pencils, others in watercolor paints. In one, there is a building labeled “St. Lawrence Place” with a large vehicle parked beside it. There are about a dozen blackbirds in the sky, with clouds looming over the building, but in the corner is a bright, shining sun casting light on flowers that have been planted all around the building.
In another picture, an angel in a purple cloak smiles at the viewer, flying over fresh green grass in a bright blue sky. Below her, small black stick figures have their heads tilted up and their arms lifted toward the sky.
St. Lawrence’s Place is a 30-home shelter nestled in the Edgewood-Floral neighborhood of Columbia, offering transitional housing, life skill training, childcare, and other services to families in need. Adult residents must be employed parents who abstain from drugs and alcohol.
In the Activity Center, there is a definite community atmosphere. There are nearly twenty children there, and all different ages—some as young as four and some as old as thirteen—but they are all dutifully doing homework together. Some of the older children work as tutors. At the front of the center, a sign hangs with the core values emphasized in the Activity Center: “Self-Advocacy, Optimism, Purpose, Creativity, Empathy, Collaboration, and Community.”
St. Lawrence Place’s hired children’s service aide, Stephanie Chandler, walks around the room, monitoring the kids closely, offering help when needed. She knows each child by name, knows their personalities and what homework assignments they’re struggling with. When Chandler tells the children it’s time for dinner, a few of the kids stand up to take turns with different household duties, like sweeping the floor, cleaning off the tables, and taking out the trash.
“I call it home,” said Chandler afterward. “It’s a very emotional job at times. You gotta love these kids. What’s they’re going through as children—it touches me.”
Stephanie Chandler’s Story
For Chandler, her job is so dear to her heart because not very long ago, St. Lawrence Place was her home.
During October 2015, when the flood wiped through the Midlands, Chandler chose to remain in her apartment with her three children. One night, her brother woke her up, alarmed. “There was water all over the floor of the apartment,” she recalled. “I couldn’t believe it. The electricity and water was off in the apartment.”
With floodwater ruining her home and all her belongings, Chandler had no choice but to flee with her children in the middle of the night. “At first, we needed a dry place, clean water, and electricity, and we didn’t know what was going to happen next,” said the flood victim. “Then I realized we weren’t going to be able to go back. Our home, everything we owned, was ruined with mold and mildew.”
For Chandler, the most difficult part about being displaced in the flood was the struggle to care for her eleven-year-old daughter, who has cystic fibrosis. Much of her daughter’s belongings, including her wheelchair, were lost in the flood. “It was very difficult, like having three other children in one,” she recalled. “Everything she does, she has to have help with—bathing, feeding, putting on clothing. She has to eat pureed food, and it was tough to get that stuff during the flood. She was eating baby food, and we were just living day to day, trying to keep her situated.”
Because caring for a special needs child is so emotionally, financially, and physically draining, Chandler was unable to find a family member or friend who would let her family stay with them during the flood. “No words can describe it,” she said. “It was the hardest time of my life. The hardest part was when my oldest daughter asked, ‘Mom, do we really have to go live in a shelter?’ I had to try to explain to her why we couldn’t go back to our house, or go stay with family members. I tried so hard just to make the best of the situation for them.”
Chandler, her two daughters, and her young son arrived at St. Lawrence Place with only the clothes they fled from the flood in. “When I first knew we were going to have to stay at a homeless shelter, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is awful.’ I imagined one big room full of a bunch of people in beds right next to each other.”
However, St. Lawrence Place proved to be completely different from what Chandler anticipated. She and her family were given a private unit with a closet and a porch. “Once we got there, they provided everything. We hadn’t even had running water or beds. And then I had a place to stay while I got back on my feet, and a safe environment for my kids,” she explained.
Chandler was grateful for the children’s program at St. Lawrence Place. Not only did her children make friends to play with during their stay at the shelter, they were also able to accompany the other kids on field trips. “St. Lawrence Place let my kids experiences places I had never been able to take them. They went rollerskating and kayaking, and they got to go to the museum and EdVenture with the other kids,” she said.
While staying at St. Lawrence Place, Chandler still struggled to get back on her feet. Caring for her special needs daughter required frequent doctor’s visits and healthcare expenses, and she found herself missing work often and struggling to stay employed, as is required from residents at the shelter. When the children’s services aide position opened up at St. Lawrence Place, Chandler quickly seized the opportunity. By the summer of 2016, she was able to move out of the shelter and into her own apartment with her children.
“I have a job that I love, I have a place of my own, and my children and I are happy again,” she said.
Understanding Homelessness in the Midlands
The face of homelessness in the Midlands has often been misconstrued or incorrectly portrayed to the public. For far too many citizens, the very word “homeless” often evokes an image of older adults living on the streets, abusing drugs and alcohol, and choosing not to work—and the actual representation of what “homeless” means goes unseen.
“The biggest misconception that we combat, is that when you use the term ‘homeless,’ you’re talking about men and women. So, families have gotten lost in that idea,” said Lila Anna Sauls, the President and CEO of Homeless No More, a partnering nonprofit organization of St. Lawrence Place. “When you look at the data collected about homelessness, it’s going to tell you that there aren’t a lot of families—because homeless families don’t want to be counted. No mother wants to say, ‘Yes, I’m homeless,’ and then risk losing her children up. We’ve seen mothers who are willing to live in cars or do anything to avoid that.”
According to Sauls, this is why St. Lawrence Place focuses on providing temporary housing and services to homeless families in need. “We have never set up the programs or the campus to look like your stereotypical homeless shelter, because we have always believed that families just don’t need a roof,” Sauls explained. “Families need a community.”
At St. Lawrence Place, that community includes children’s programming, on-site case management, and life skills training classes. Adults are offered education on budgeting, parenting, and credit repair, and children play and learn in a literacy-based afterschool program. Teenagers who live at St. Lawrence Place are required to engage in weekly counseling sessions and life skill development classes.
For all of the vital services St. Lawrence Place provides to homeless families in the Midlands, they are still struggling to help the larger community understand how a family becomes homeless. “We fight a lot of stereotypes,” said Sauls. “You’ll hear this ‘obviously they knew they were going to be to homeless’ rationale…but most of our families have been in crisis so long, they’ve burned those bridges to prevent being homeless.”
Sauls continued to explain, “If you or I lost our jobs tomorrow, we would likely have enough support from friends and family to help us get by until we found another job…but a lot of our families have used that support system to the point where it no longer exists. So then they hit that one bump—the car breaks down and they can’t get to work, the child gets very ill and they have to call into work three days in a row, they lose their jobs, they have no savings, and now they’re living on the streets…For Mrs. Chandler, the flood was her breaking point.”
Without learning the valuable life skills provided by St. Lawrence Place, many of these families would likely find themselves homeless and in crisis again. St. Lawrence Place instructs its residents about a variety of services and tools, including job interview skills, budgeting, increasing employability, furthering their education, and even very simple skills such as using the city bus system. “We want to help them further their education or develop so that they’re working enough to make that living wage and have clean, affordable housing,” said Sauls.
According to Sauls, all of the parents at St. Lawrence Place are employed currently. The problem is that many are just underemployed and not making enough money to support their families. “They’ve got a lot of barriers already out there, and that misconception that homeless people are just sitting there doing nothing is just not true,” she said. “Homeless people in the Midlands are the working poor. They have jobs, but they just don’t earn enough to pay rent, to have a car, to keep their lights on…82% of the families who leave St. Lawrence Place never go back into homelessness. That’s because we’ve given them the programmatic pieces to help them fix what went wrong.”
There is one specific social problem that greatly contributes to family homelessness in the Midlands, and is rarely discussed. Both Chandler and Sauls emphasized that families arrive at St. Lawrence for a variety of reasons, but very often it is a result of a parent and children trying to escape domestic violence.
“Domestic violence is a huge reason why families become homeless,” Sauls explained. “Over the holidays, we found a family living in a car outside of Wal-Mart. The mother was running from an abuse situation, and her family was in Pennyslvania so she had nowhere else to go. It was an emergency situation—she just picked up her belongings and ran with her children.”
Chandler found herself very moved by the generosity and helpfulness of the other residents at St. Lawrence Place, and she made friends with several other mothers. She was in awe at the amount of families who were “running from domestic violence.”
“When we first came here, we were welcomed into one big community…and the people here are my second family now,” she said. “I know what they’re going through. And I’m happy that I’m in a better place now and can be a person to talk to when they need inspiration or support.”
Race for the Place
Federal funding and local support for programs providing aide to homeless families has decreased dramatically in recent years, leaving Homeless No More and St. Lawrence Place to scramble for ways to sustain their programming.
One method they are using to both draw awareness to the problem of homeless families and to raise funding is a Race for the Place 5K and Kids’ Fun Run, which will be held at 8 a.m. February 18. Asking a $30 donation from each participating adult and $12 for each child, the shelter hopes to lead a large group of supporting Midlands residents through Shandon, whether 5K joiners want to walk, jog, skip, or run the walk.
“Federal funding priorities have shifted to helping chronically homeless men and women and unaccompanied youth, so we have lost a lot of federal funding in the last few years,” acknowledged Sauls. “So we have had to find other ways to sustain the program at St. Lawrence Place. All the money raised at Race for the Place goes straight to pay for the programs, including social workers and the children’s program.”
The staff and residents at St. Lawrence Place hopes that Race for the Place will raise enough funding to allow the shelter to continue providing its training, services, and temporary housing for homeless families. Race for the Place strives to also shed light on some of the shelter’s other needs, including donations of furniture and household items. The shelter also needs volunteers, in particular tutors and mentors.
Sauls hopes that Race for the Place brings an awareness to the Midlands community about the true state of homeless families in this region. “I would caution (the average Midlands resident) that they may actually be sitting next to a homeless family and not even know it,” explained the director. “Our families are normal families who are working as hard as they can to fix the situation they’re in. They’re parents who are doing everything they can to keep their children safe. That’s the bottom line, and it’s what we all work for everyday.”
For Chandler, she and her family have recovered from the most difficult and trying experience of her life. After finding a new job at St. Lawrence Place and getting her own apartment, she has recovered from the damage the flood did to her and her children’s well-being. She said she now hopes her children will have learned “to try to understand what someone else is going through, to make that connection, and to be a friend to someone in a shelter…I want them to know they should always be a helping hand, at any time.”
Chandler, too, hopes that Race for the Place will draw necessary awareness and funding for support services for homeless families in the Midlands. In the meantime, she returns to the shelter daily to passionately provides care and leadership for the children whose families are still there. “I’m lucky,” she said. “I never look at work like a paycheck now. Every day, I just think, ‘I’m going to see my second family.’”
For more information about homelessness in the Midlands or the upcoming Race for the Place 5K, visit www.homelessnomoresc.org.