Note: The names of the women at the shelter have been changed to protect privacy.
In the biblical story of the birth of Jesus, the pregnant Mary gave birth in a stable because there was no room at the inn. The women’s seasonal shelter Room at the Inn, located at First United Methodist Church, turns the story on its head: though the volunteer-run overnight shelter offers only 15 beds, they haven’t had to turn anyone away yet.
“If it wasn’t for this shelter I don’t know where I’d be,” said Maria, one of the women at the seasonal shelter one night soon after it opened in early November. She’s one of the 56 different women who’s stayed at the women’s shelter since it opened last year. Shelter manager Sara Power reports that by the end of the season last year there was an average of 10 residents each night. One of the many facets of homelessness is the particular hardships facing homeless women, and the shelter aims to provide a safe place for women who may have nowhere else to go.
“The vast majority of women who come here have PTSD from domestic violence or abuse at some point in their life,” said Power. Each of the four women interviewed had faced domestic violence during their life. National estimates for the percentage of homeless women who’ve been victims of abuse and domestic violence range from 63% to 92%. This violence can force women into homelessness. Abusers often isolate their victim and control finances; when a woman leaves an abusive situation, she often has nowhere to go. Power said of Room at the Inn, “Anyone can come here—we don’t ask them a whole lot of questions.” She reported that the shelter has hosted women who have homes but who aren’t safe there due to domestic violence.
The current 15 beds is up from 12 last year. Women can check in from 7 to 8 p.m. each night, and must leave in the morning. Snacks are offered in the morning and evening, and showers are available three times a week. Volunteers are needed to help check in guests in the evening, to bring snacks, or to stay overnight in the shelter. Power said that last year OSU’s Families in Poverty class spent community service time with the shelter, but that that hasn’t happened this year. People can sign up to volunteer at http://signupgenius.com/go/8050944afa92fa02-2014.
There are differences between the occupants of the men’s and women’s shelters. Power has observed that fewer of the women have substance abuse issues, and that often they don’t look stereotypically homeless. “The women really take care of themselves. Most of the women, I don’t think you’d know that [they are homeless], seeing them on the street.”
Rebecca suffered 27 years of domestic violence. After becoming homeless, she spent time on the streets and was attacked five times, including an attempted rape and a near-stabbing by a fellow homeless person. “It’s more harrowing to be a homeless woman because most of the guys believe they can do anything they want with a homeless woman, because they won’t complain,” she said. She’s hoping to get into the Benton Plaza low-income housing by the first of the year, with help from Power and Aleita Hass-Holcomb at the Daytime Drop-in Center.
Lauren is nearly 22, and has lived in Corvallis since she was 13. She said, “I was in a relationship with my daughter’s father, who beat me. So I had to leave him….He was our second income.” She couldn’t afford housing anymore, and lived at COI for several months but said it didn’t work out. Lauren spent much of the summer sleeping on the streets, and finally put her 15-month-old daughter into a foster home for stability. “You lose your home, you lose your income, it’s like you don’t have a voice anymore,” she said. “I don’t touch drugs—I took the brunt of my parents’ drug use and I didn’t want my children, if I ever had any, to experience a single thing I went through.”
Liz also grew up in Corvallis. She isn’t alone. Power said, “The vast majority of our shelter guests are local. Last year we had six out of 56 women who had grown up in Alsea. We had fewer than that who were just passing through town.”
Liz said, “I’ve lived here for 30 years…it’s like camping in your own backyard.” She discussed the issue of drug use: “There is an incredible amount of meth being sold to people in this town, most notably college kids.” While she states that “the highest risk to homeless women on the streets is other homeless people,” often associated with meth, she adds that drug use “isn’t a homeless issue, it’s a whole Corvallis issue.”
“Corvallis cops turn their heads to a lot of homeless problems. They don’t really know what to do,” said Maria. She continued, “I was raped twice up there [on the streets].” Lt. Cord Wood of the Corvallis Police Department said that the police don’t see many reports of sex crimes from the homeless community. He doesn’t immediately have numbers, but estimates only one or two such incidents over the past few years. However, he emphasized that those crimes may happen more often, but may not be reported to the police.
Assaults and other violence may be more common than sexual violence, added Wood. “We’ve had an increase of homeless folks coming to town. Anytime you have a growth in a population I’m sure the issues that follow that population will grow as well,” he said. Like Liz, Wood cited drug and alcohol use among homeless as being a cause of violence.
Although women are a particularly vulnerable and arguably a particularly needy subsection of the homeless, they may not be able to find a place to sleep at Corvallis’ shelters. When Maria was asked about other resources in town, she said about COI that “They do their best with what they’ve got. I showed up there clean and sober, and I couldn’t stay because they had no more room.” For Maria and other women like her, Room at the Inn is often their last safety net.