The names in this story have been changed to protect the individual’s identity.
“I [would] sit there and just look at my children. Watch them breathe for hours and hours and hours, which feels like days and days and days,” said Jane, recalling what it was like living in a van with her children.
Jane is a homeless mother that lives at the transitional living center, Sheffield Place.
Jane said that she has been homeless for most of her life. Both of her parents created instability in her childhood.
“I’ve been in and out of homelessness for about my entire life, really, to tell you the truth,” she said. “It started when I was younger. My mom bounced around a lot. I feel like that’s a lot of the reason of why I’m still stuck in this homelessness thing, is because I grew up in an unstable environment, dysfunctional environment.”
Her mother is an alcoholic and her father abused her.
“I lived with my mom who was, and still is, a severe alcoholic. [She was] abusive verbally, mentally, physically. Which has taught me to be the same way to my children, which I’m working on. I was molested by my father until the age of 14…”
Jane would see her mother drinking often. Once, when she was a child, she saw her mother passed out drunk and naked. Jane said this was the last straw and she wanted to get away from her mother.
“I told my mom I didn’t want to be there anymore. So, I decided to go live with my father,” she said. “That’s when he started penetrating me. By this time, I was in middle school… I would go to school and get into fights. I would bully other children because I wanted someone to notice that something was wrong. I didn’t get the response that I wanted, so I continued the behavior.”
Jane said while in high school she started acting out the most because she wanted her mom’s attention. Jane, despite acting out, graduated high school with honors.
“I graduated high school top of my class, honors cord,” she said. “That was my get out. That was the only time I was away, and I was free, and I was safe, was at school.”
Jane said that she looked forward to waking up every morning to go to school, even though she was bullied because it meant being away from home.
“It’s really hard when all you have is negative around you. All I ever heard was how I would be just like my mom, I’d never amount to anything, I got everything I deserved.”
“I still told myself that I was going to be the one to break the chain,” she said. “I was going to be the one to break the cycle of violence in my family.”
“It’s emotionally draining. When you try so hard to do the opposite and then you end up doing exactly what you didn’t want to do,” she said.
After graduating, she went to college and got a certificate. However, she said that she got tired of being and feeling alone, so she came back to the Kansas City area, got pregnant and fully dropped out of school.
Jane was married to a man she said was abusive for nearly a decade.
“I married a man I said I would never marry. He was everything I didn’t want. [He was] violent verbally, mentally, physically,” she said.
When they finally separated, she said it was tough.
“It was hard because he held the children… over my head. So, I had to leave them there… not knowing what was going to happen. But I had to do it so I could get some type of stability to bring them to,” she said.
After thinking for a moment, Jane said, “That’s by far the worst thing a mother could do is leave her children with an abuser.”
“But I had no choice,” she said. “Police gave me no option. They told me I could not return back to the house.”
Jane said that one day she snuck back over to their house after one of her children had called her crying. She told her kids to come outside and then they ran for it.
This is when Jane became homeless once again. She moved around a lot. She and her children had spent about a month living on the streets until someone came to help. She moved into an apartment that helped homeless mothers. After a few years, she moved back to the Kansas City area.
Jane and her children eventually started living out of her van.
“I get them up, if I had a bottle of water I’d let them rinse their mouth out… take them to school and go sit in the parking lot at Price Chopper for a few hours,” she said. “Then I would go down to my moms, I’d sit there until it was time to go get them from school. And then there were days that I didn’t even know if I would be able to make it back to go get them from school, I didn’t have much money from letting the van run all night.”
Jane said that when she lived in her van, she didn’t get much sleep. She would park in well-lit parking lots, but she was always alert. She worried for her safety. She worried someone might try to kidnap her children. She was worried cops would see her children and take them away from her.
Jane now lives at Sheffield Place, a shelter that takes in homeless mothers and their children. Sheffield Place focuses on helping mothers heal from trauma, learn how to take care of themselves and their children, and helps them find a stable job.
At Sheffield Place, mothers are given a room for themselves and their children. Their rooms include beds and a private bathroom. Each floor of the building has a communal kitchen. The basement has a childcare facility.
According to Regina McKinney, senior clinical case manager at Sheffield Place, families are put into a routine and given a chore list. Every mother is given a case manager and receives therapy.
Sheffield Place focuses a lot on the mother’s mental health. They have three trained clinical therapists on staff.
“If I am not well mentally it’s very easy for my life to just pass before my eyes,” said McKinney.
Sheffield Place’s data shows that 76% of all mothers that come into Sheffield Place see improvements in their mental health.
McKinney even works with mothers on getting a job. She said if she notices someone keeps going for interviews, but isn’t getting a job, she’ll sit down with them and have practice interviews.
Jane said that she did not like how scheduled Sheffield Place was when she first arrived.
“When I first got here, it was too much,” she said. “I have to be in groups all day long… my children [ran] amuck, I had no control over them. So, I was upset with them over every little thing… I hated the rules, I hated the chores… I didn’t like the fact that someone was telling me what I needed to do as if I didn’t already know. But that was exactly what I needed.”
She said she needed someone to hold her accountable for everything she does. She said the structure they gave her is what she needed to raise her children properly.
“Now I get up in the morning refreshed from the night before because I had a lovely night’s rest,” she said. “My children are safe; I don’t have to worry about someone is going to bust in the windows of the van and try to harm any of us. They eat real meals and not [just] noodles. They’re able to take a bath and we’re able to wash clothes. They’re interacting with other children, they’re learning how to control their emotions and how to interact with other individuals, how to be themselves, how to be children.”
Jane said group and individual therapy has helped her the most at Sheffield Place. She said hearing the stories of the other mothers helped her to realize she’s not alone.
Owning a home, owning a car, and having a savings account for all of her children are Jane’s goals for the next five years. She also dreams of having a singing career.
Jane said her message to other women in her situation is to love yourself first.
“You only need you to make it each and every day. You don’t have to let someone else define who you are,” she said.
“Being homeless is not a horrible thing,” she said. “It is not a choice that one makes. It just happens and in that, you have to see that there is a way out. No one chooses to be abused. No one chooses to actually be an addict. But we can overcome it one day at a time, one step at a time.”