The Ottumwa Courier

August 10, 2013

Women's shelter preps for closure

Former shelter residents speak out against facility, staff

CHELSEA DAVIS
Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Ottumwa's crisis center will continue providing victim services while its women's shelter shuts down, but some women are unhappy about the way things are run.

The shelter part of Ottumwa's Crisis Center and Women's Shelter will close Sept. 30, said executive director Cheryl Brown.

In May, the Iowa Attorney General's Office, which oversees crime victim assistance, announced that due to a cut in federal funding, 12 of the state's 20 women's shelters would close. Instead, the state was split into regions of service — continuing a trend of regionalization most recently seen in the state's mental health redesign — which will each have one or two shelters, a sexual assault service provider and a domestic abuse service provider.

"We received transitional funds to operate for the next three months full time for our shelter and transition out of other services until December," she said.

Domestic abuse services will continue in Ottumwa, Brown said, and the crisis line (1-800-464-8340) will be answered 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

There are currently 11 people staying at the shelter, she said.

"We are winding down, though," she said. "We're not taking new admissions unless they're very short-term."

But Marlene Doyle, 63, who arrived at the Crisis Center in May from Texas, has concerns about lice and bedbugs at the center.

"I was moved in with a person with active head lice, and I told them I would not stay in my room, so I was moved to the hall and then I moved to my truck," she said. "I've been living in my truck for three weeks on the property of the shelter."

Police Chief Tom McAndrew said he's not aware of any incidents reported at the shelter.

"We've got regulars we deal with every other day, who are not really committing criminal acts, they're just mentally ill," he said. "But I don't know anything about out at the Crisis Center."

Another woman spoke to the Courier on condition of anonymity for fear of losing her job.

"This is just not fair," she said. "I can't go back in there. My boss told me to stay out of the shelter 'cause I could infect everybody else. We're in between a rock and a hard place. I don't know where I'm going to stay tonight."

Jody Gates, director of the city's health, inspections and solid waste department, said she has not received any complaints about the shelter.

"Our clerk did say several weeks ago somebody contacted us about someone's personal hygiene ... staying at the Crisis Center," Gates said. "But as far as any of us recalls or knows, we didn't get a complaint about there actually being some kind of a bedbug or lice issue at the Crisis Center."

That report was referred to Wapello County Public Health, she said, but clinical director Lynelle Diers hasn't heard word of it.

"But lice and bedbugs aren't reportable," Diers said. "Lice is not reportable because it's just a nuisance, it doesn't cause infection or diseases. The same goes for bedbugs. You can't get diseases from bedbugs, but you can get an infection if you keep scratching the area."

Brown said lice and bedbugs are addressed as they arise.

"Any kind of a facility goes through things like that," she said. "School systems deal with it, all kinds of systems deal with it and we address those issues as we can."

Shelly Peet said shelter staff promised to help her with some medical issues and first month's rent so she could get back on her feet.

"But they haven't reached out to help," Peet said. "If we complain about anything, they punish us, they don't help us. They're very picky about who they can help and will help. Most of them will snub you."

While Brown agreed women have complained, "I'm not sure what purpose it serves to explore all that."

"Often what has happened is people automatically go to the shelter and don't necessarily explore other options," Brown said. "So we're going to be providing services in another way with an emphasis on permanent housing instead of emergency shelter."

Those who do need emergency shelter will have to call the 24/7 crisis line, she said. Staff will then make a referral to the region's designated shelters in Oskaloosa or Des Moines.

"We try to address everyone's concerns as they come up, but having done this work for a long time there are just some situations where it wouldn't really matter what you did, it wouldn't necessarily make everything OK," Brown said. "We have had some funds here available to help get them into permanent housing, but some have yet to avail themselves of those things. We've been encouraging people to do that since July."

Doyle insists not everyone's concerns have been addressed.

"They promised us we wouldn't be hurt by the mismanagement of the administrators," Doyle said. "But they have not come forward with the money, and we're being put out on the street. It was a straight-forward lie.

"I will not stay in the state of Iowa if this is representative of the way the state treats its citizens. This isn't the way it should go in any shelter. If this is representative of the other shelters closed in the state, I can damn well see why. If this is the way people were treated at all the other shelters that were closed, the only good thing with them is they actually got placed somewhere — we're still in hell."

— To follow reporter Chelsea Davis on Twitter, head to twitter.com/chelsealeedavis.