Jeanine Knight, now Women’s Homeless Housing Coordinator for Union Gospel Mission in Salem, worked nearly 13 years at the women’s shelter, Simonka Place. Formerly a nursing home administrator, Knight is now researching the history of UGM. When we asked for her thoughts on Salem women without shelter, we found her answers compelling.

It’s hard to know how many Salem women experience homelessness

Homeless women are less visible than men. The Point in Time count collected each January tries to “count the homeless” but this is like counting how many birds we have in Oregon. They are in too many places, and not all want to be counted.

Over the years, the UGM records how many have received shelter each night, but not the numbers of people that have been turned away because they were full. 

A short history of local women’s shelters

When the UGM’s woman’s shelter started in 1968, 50 years ago, they did not even know if there was a need for a shelter for homeless women.  But when they opened, women came.  Homeless individuals then were in their twenties, often transients, going from harvesting crop to crop, often with their husbands. They only needed a brief stay, a few nights. Sometimes it was an unwed pregnant girl, afraid to tell her parents or kicked out by her parents. Maybe a woman released from jail. 

The first shelter for women was a large home and served 12-13 women and children. Over time, more space was needed. In 1990 they had thirty beds and served six more by using floor mats.  Simonka House moved to Keizer in November 2002 and became Simonka Place, where they had space for 46 beds. The last expansion was in 2013, which resulted in the total of 100 twin beds we have today.

When I started in 2005, women staying at Simonka Place were able to stay up to 30 days, unless they were in a 90-day Employment or 12-month Addiction recovery program. This seemed to be a standard for shelters across the country. They needed to go when their time was up, so they rotated. In Salem they moved on to the Salvation Army, a friend’s couch, or Helping Hands in Albany, then return when they were eligible again. 

Although fed and sheltered, few were able to make much progress in ending their homelessness.  It was a revolving door, going nowhere. The response to the applications they completed at one shelter could not be forwarded to their new unknown location.  They started over again on job applications and waiting lists for housing, wherever they went.  Their core issues of what was the reason for their homelessness, was not being addressed, or if it was, it was not resolved.

Sometime around 2011, Simonka Place was given approval to make a major change.  No longer would women be able to just stay for thirty days. They could stay as long as needed, IF (and this is critical) they were actively addressing the issues keeping them homeless. With the assistance of knowledgeable and encouraging case managers, that would come to listen, help identify the biggest need, teaching privately life skills, financial responsibility and assisting them to reduce or eliminate their employment and housing barriers.  They developed a relationship and worked as a team.

Each year that followed, 70-80 women, with and without children, moved into permanent housing. Of those, 4-5 women a year returned, unable to make it on their own.  They needed a more structured environment. Once there was proof of this need, Disability Services helped with their permanent placements in adult foster care homes. For those few it took two steps, but they were no longer homeless, not on the streets and their needs were met.  This change has helped end the revolving door for almost 400 women, and continues today.

For those not in a recovery program, we find it takes an average of 10 months for them to get permanent housing.  Finding and keeping employment, paying debts such as past due utility bills, or other housing related barriers, then saving for housing applications, deposits, first and last month rent, etc. 

Now with the shortage of affordable housing it takes even longer to find housing. Many can only afford a room for rent, but that does not work if you have children, and not all “rooms for rents” are safe.  The benefit of women staying an average of 10 months, is that they really learn and continue to apply life skills. We find they have their homes or a better one 1, 2, and 3 years later.

While at Simonka Place, they need to identify their debts with credit reports. The homeless do not have much, but they do have debts. When you are homeless it is hard for your bills to find you. You also probably cannot pay them. Once debts were identified, they were encouraged to contact those they owed money and establish and keep to a payment plan.  When you become employed and find housing your name starts to surface, and along with it your debts followed by the collection agencies.  A wage garnishment from an old debt could wipe them out and being unable to pay their rent, leave them homeless again.

For women that are not employable or struggling with addictions, case managers work with them to address their needs.  Some are physical, mental, related to domestic violence, senior citizen or a mother with young children. Some need to complete their GED and learn skills. They may become employable, but if not, what resources can they pursue now.

Without a shelter, where do they sleep?

Simonka Place has beds for about 100 women.  Historically, we had to turn women away when our beds and mats were full.  Once I was told, not to turn them away, but just tell them what we had. If they wanted it, bring them in.  We did, and they came. We had 19 sleeping on the chapel floor, more in the dining room, and others on one side of the halls, so egress would not be blocked. It was too many, especially for the children. So we scaled back to what seemed safe.

One thing I have not been able to determine is where are the homeless women?  Where do they go, when they leave Simonka Place before obtaining housing?  Occasionally they tell us.  Sometimes it is to a friend’s or a relative’s home, but rarely is it permanent. We often fear some return to their abuser.

Housing challenges that women face

Five and six years ago, finding employment was the challenge. Today, finding housing is the problem – even for fully employed people without barriers. Employment has developed faster than housing. Local supportive housing goes quickly, and those that find housing are paying full rent, sometimes 70% of their take home pay, which gives little room for unexpected expenses or saving.

The population of the Salem area has increased, as has the State. When housing cannot keep up with demand, rents increase. A year ago, we were at 1% Vacancy, and 4% is needed for normal turn over. Some of the homeless today are homeless because they could not pay the rent increases.

For a variety of reasons, women have not had the same earnings as men. Yet, mothers that have young children usually have custody of them, and require an apartment with more bedrooms, which is more expensive.  If men earn more, it is easier for them to pay the higher rents. Men and women compete for the same housing, both need it.

Unsheltered women are getting older

The trend I have seen with homeless women is the average age is much older than when the shelter started in 1968. There are a lot more “grandmothers” than mothers at Simonka Place.  We have even had them as old as 80 years. With age comes the problems that come with age. Walkers and wheelchairs are not uncommon, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, etc. 

Lack of shelter compounds every problem a person can have

Homelessness is complex. Everyone experiences some trauma in life. Death, divorce, mental illness in the home, abandonment, and there are many more. Statistics show that the homeless, especially those with addictions, have significantly more trauma in life than do others. That does not mean they cannot succeed, they just have more to work through. Working through it is painful. No wonder many want to suppress or numb it.

The longer you are homeless, the more apt you are to give up, beaten down by feelings of failure, grief, shame, anger and domestic violence – to name just a few.

The importance of making connections

A former homeless man once said he had been homeless for five years, but it would have been only three, if he had a friend. While it sounds simplistic, I believe there is real value in acceptance, non-judgmental assistance.

Being able to establish long-term healthy and positive relationships are essential to the transition. Whether you call them a life coach, a mentor or a friend, they are someone that is there because they care, and they will be there tomorrow.

Those in need must commit to themselves

I believe for permanent housing, there needs to some form of “buy in” for the recipient in order to provide dignity and increase self-worth. There is a fine line between charity and enabling.  I have seen this at Simonka Place, when women were amazed that they could actually save money or eliminate a debt that had overwhelmed them. It was their commitment that made the difference. As much as we wanted it for them, they needed to want it more, for them to be successful.

Simply placing people with a roof over their head, with meals, showers, laundry, helps – but does not resolve the core needs that are keeping them homeless. But it is a start. No one can be their best living out of a car, a camp or under a bridge. 

Current and former homeless individuals need to be an active part of both short-term and long-term solutions.