February 01, 2017
Romona Baker has been working with Safe To Sleep to provide emergency shelter to homeless women in Springfield for five years. Yet, during a routine interview with reporter asking basic questions about the program, she breaks down crying. Her tears are not tears of sympathy for the women, frustration at their situations or anger at lack of support for their cause. She cries when she talks about how blessed she has been by being able to serve.
“To see someone I know from the shelter at Wal-Mart and to be able to go up and give her hug … most people don’t have an opportunity to do that,” she said.
Baker’s goal is to connect ordinary people with homeless people so that stereotypes disappear.
She said she knows that Jesus loves her, and she needs to recognize that he loves the homeless just as much. She should try to care for them that much as well.
“People look away from them all day,” Baker said. “We need to look at them as people.”
Safe to Sleep is a ministry of the Council of Churches of the Ozarks in Springfield, and Baker is the director. It operates from 7:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. every night. An average night shelters 30 women. The shelter hit a high number of 43 last summer, but is approved to shelter up to 50. About half of the guests leave after a week; A few stay for several months. If it looks like they will be there more than a couple of weeks, people work on helping them find more permanent housing.
About 20 Springfield churches from a dozen different denominations provide the two volunteers per night needed to operate the shelter. Safe To Sleep currently has a list of 70 volunteers. Most people do it once or twice per month. Many of those volunteers are in their 60s and 70s, and they feel comfortable and safe in a church.
Several years ago when Safe to Sleep approached the pastor at Pathways United Methodist Church in Springfield about hosting the homeless shelter in the church, they got an immediate answer.
“He said, ‘It’s the right thing to do,’” Baker said, and Safe To Sleep had a home. Pathways was one of the first churches to support Safe To Sleep as a cold weather shelter, and has been part of the program since that beginning. This past year was the first year that the shelter was also open through the summer.
“Being able to use their facility without paying rent is a huge a gift to us,” Baker said. “It’s also closer than our other facility, so we’re saving money on gas.”
She recognizes that the heating, cooling and showers create a significant increase in the utility bills at the church and also knows that she wouldn’t be able to pay for it. The church has Vacation Bible School, bazaars and various other ministries and activities and treats the shelter as part of its programming schedule. When the gym was being used as a polling place on Election Day, the shelter was just dispersed to the classrooms.
“I don’t know of any church that is more open to the community and people in need,” Baker said.
Baker estimates the program costs $300,000 a year but the shelter operates on a $100,000 budget. The other two-thirds of what they need comes from volunteers and the generous donation of the facilities at Pathways.
“They’ve been the perfect location. At 10 miles from the drop-in center, they are close, but not so close that we have a problem with getting visitors,” she said.
The Council of Churches of the Ozarks has considered trying to buy property, but being at Pathways has its advantages beyond being free.
“The women are conscious of the fact that they are sleeping in a church, and they feel safe there,” Baker said. “Being in a church also helps curb improper behavior. I’ve heard one woman say to another, ‘You can’t talk that way here. You’re in a church.’”
Many of the women are very religious, reading their Bibles in the evening and in the morning. When someone enters the program they are assessed by the Burrell Crisis Center to determine if they are likely to pose a danger to themselves or others.
Many women return to the program. Most of the people in it are not the chronic homeless population. It is more likely that they are low-income people who are in and out of jobs. Many have mental problems or a physical disability. Some have had a sudden life change, like the death of a spouse. About 40 percent are over the age of 50.
“These aren’t teenage runaways or drug users,” Baker said. “Some of them may have been that at one point, but now they are just people having a hard time in their life.”
Sometimes their homelessness has taken them by surprise. One woman was moving from the East Coast to California and had her car stolen, which had all of her belongings and money in it.
“We had a woman that stayed with us for the first time last night, and she said it was the first time she had slept all night for a week,” Baker said.
After spending a night volunteering at the shelter, friends might ask Baker if she had fun last night.
“Is it fun? No. Was I blessed? Absolutely,” she said. “I’ve been on a lot of mission trips to distant places, but to be able to serve in mission right here in Springfield is a privilege.”
When she’s there at night, she thinks of the women there seeking shelter as she would think of her own children. She wants to tuck them in. When she’s not there, she hears people say things like “Why don’t they just get a job?”
“When you get to know them, you learn the answers to those questions,” she said. “To be there for them, to look them in the eye, to accept them with dignity… it’s a blessing.”