Tharisma Howard spends her days at homeless shelter support programs and her nights in her sister’s house, a place where they live without basics like water or electricity.
The 23-year-old has been homeless since she was 16, but she has a place other than a shelter where she can sleep at night, something not available to the estimated 140 homeless women living in Baton Rouge shelters, in transitional housing or on the street. And for those who do not have a place to sleep, it can be difficult to find one.
Baton Rouge’s female homeless population, which was last calculated in a 2015 homelessness survey, exceeds the 60 or so emergency shelter beds available to them most nights. And statewide, the number of women who slept on the streets, in their cars or in other places not meant for habitation surged by 30.5 percent between 2014 and 2015, although overall homeless numbers declined.
Society of St. Vincent de Paul Chief Executive Officer Michael Acaldo is on the front lines of working with them in Baton Rouge. But he finds the 36 beds and eight cribs inside the St. Vincent de Paul Bishop Ott Sweet Dreams Shelter for Women and Children often isn’t enough.
Acaldo said they hope to break ground this year on an expansion that would nearly double the Sweet Dreams shelter capacity. They’ve raised $760,000 in private dollars to build the larger shelter but are still seeking more, especially to help furnish it.
It’s not only women who need a place to sleep at night who are coming in droves to shelters. The Bishop Ott Day Center, where women learn life skills and education also has seen an uptick.
Two years ago, 372 women and 188 children were served at the Day Center. That number rose to 411 women and 203 being served at the center throughout 2015.
Women and children can stay for free at the shelter and usually stay within the one- to three-month range as long as they are working toward a goal and bettering themselves, Acaldo said. Turning people away when the shelter is full is a last resort.
He said they try to find another place for people who come for help, including occasionally putting somebody up in a hotel for the night if the money is available.
Collette Desselles, the executive director of a women’s transitional house in Baton Rouge called Lean on Me, said she also feels the demand to expand. But she cannot afford it right now.
Her house fits 10 women who pay $300 a month and can stay for two years. The women who stay with her have a variety of backgrounds — some have been recently released from prison, others are fleeing domestic violence and some are battling mental health issues.
“There’s not enough places for them to go,” Desselles said. “As soon as two leave, we might go two weeks and then two more will come.”
Other women, like Howard, find themselves relying on family and friends for shelter.
Howard said a family friend raised her until the woman had a stroke in 2008. It forced then-teenager Howard to learn how to be an adult, pay bills and make ends meet. That’s also when it all went wrong.
She said she suffered the loss of two children and had a miscarriage along the way.
“I gave up,” Howard said, as she ate pasta from a can in the One Stop Homeless Services Center on North 17th Street. “I want to stop letting myself give up so quick. And now it’s hard. It’s hard to find a job, your own place, a car.”
Howard’s 34-year-old sister Teresa Williams also is looking for work. Williams and Howard live together with Williams’ teenage son. While they have a roof over their heads, they can’t afford to pay utilities, leaving them without running water or electricity.
Williams’ priority right now is trying to find a way to pay water and electric bills, and making sure her son stays in school.
While Williams’ son goes to school, she and Howard ride the bus or catch a ride with a friend to the One Stop, where they bathe, eat and spend their days.
“I’ve been in the system a long time,” said Williams, who did not graduate from high school. “I don’t have time to get an education. I need to work.”
Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless Executive Director Randy Nichols said homelessness numbers reflect high poverty rates and insufficient affordable housing options. A recent report noted that East Baton Rouge Parish had a “poor” availability of affordable homes, while 35 percent of households don’t have enough money to make ends meet.
The overall number of homeless men in Baton Rouge, at 462, dwarfs the number of homeless women. But more beds are available for men.
Nichols said it can be more difficult to rehouse women with children, whereas men are often alone. And homeless children are more likely to suffer from developmental delays and poor educational performance, he said.
The problem is not as simple as finding them a place to stay for a few nights. Nichols said the key is to find sustainable housing that people can afford.
“As we see this cost of living edge up, it makes it harder, especially for mothers with children, to make ends meet,” Acaldo said.
Nichols said people who choose to be homeless are few and far between. He said some people prefer not to stay in shelters because they dislike the structure of following schedules, giving up addictions and living with others.
Mental illness also can play a role in people choosing to stay out of shelters. Acaldo said it’s heartbreaking to know that some people — and particularly the mentally ill — do not seek shelter.
“Any time you have a large number of people who are congregating together, it does attract people who may wish to do harm to those individuals, and that is a concern of ours at St. Vincent de Paul,” Acaldo said about people who live on the streets. “They’re kind of a target for crime, and they’re so very vulnerable.”
Howard dreams of the freedom of living in her own place on her own terms. What she longs for is not so different from most people: She wants a job, she wants a home of her own and she wants to marry her longtime boyfriend, whom she calls “the man of my dreams.”
But he’s homeless too, and she is not sure how long it will take for them to both get their lives on track. Until then, she said she will keep depending on the resources that exist for her.