Rural Iowa homeless shelter expanding to aid more women

VINCENT — When Jamie Daniels got out of prison — for the fourth time — she knew she didn’t want to go back. She knew she didn’t want to fall back into drugs and lose the sobriety she’s been working hard on for the last year and two months.

“I had a hard time getting out of prison because I didn’t have a place to go,” she said.

The Fort Dodge native didn’t have many options for a place to live or work — her parole officer had already denied three of her housing choices.

Then she heard someone talking about the Lotus Community Project, a women’s emergency homeless shelter located in rural Webster County near Vincent. So she applied for a spot at the shelter, and arrived in May.

“I was so happy they took me, otherwise I’d still be sitting there in prison,” Daniels told the Fort Dodge Messenger.

The structure of living in the Lotus shelter has helped Daniels work on setting and achieving her goals — like making it to her therapy and parole appointments, looking for a job and paying on fines in order to get her driver’s license back. At the shelter, there’s always someone there to check on her progress and see if she needs any help or extra encouragement. They keep her on track.

“All this stuff is overwhelming, getting out of prison,” Daniels said. “And I usually give up and I just don’t want to give up this time, I don’t want to go back to prison again. This has been a safe place for me.”

Staying at the Lotus shelter, Daniels meets women like her — those who have just been released from jail or prison — and women who have fallen on hard times and become homeless. She said the community she’s found in the other women at the shelter is part of what’s keeping her going in the right direction.

“All the girls there, having other people to talk to, to figure stuff out so you’re not just doing it all by yourself, it’s great,” Daniels said. “I don’t do good all by myself.”

Daniels will actually be leaving the Lotus shelter very soon. In fact, she’s moving right next door to the new transitional living house that the Lotus Community Project recently completed renovating.

“I’m excited that I’ve got a job and I’ll be moving over here,” Daniels said. “I’m a little nervous because I have all these things I need to plan out.”

The Lotus shelter is located in the former St. John’s Lutheran Church, outside Vincent. Next to the church is a house that was home to the church’s pastors over the years.

Now, the house will be home to up to five Lotus women at a time. The women will start at the shelter and sort of “graduate” up to the transitional house, Lotus Executive Director Ashley Vaala explained.

“The criteria to come over here is employed and single,” she added.

While the shelter itself takes in mothers and their children, this transitional house will not. Vaala said in the future she hopes to build transitional housing apartments for Lotus women who do have children who live with them.

“People do come to us with jobs,” Vaala said. “It happens often. But that job isn’t cutting it, or something big happened and even though they’re still working, they’re homeless.”

There are five bedrooms in the house. Each room will have a keypad door lock so the women can set a code to unlock their door.

The residents of the transitional house will be expected to pay something to live there, but that number will be different from person to person, depending on income and other financial responsibilities, Vaala said.

There probably won’t be a hard-and-fast rule on how long someone can stay in the house, Vaala said. At the shelter, guests are told they can stay up to three months, but depending on their situations, they can receive extensions if they show they are working on their goals and making progress.

“I would say a year is a good amount of time for people to most likely get on their feet, but we’ll look at each case individually and what’s best for them,” she said.

Vaala said a lot of women find themselves in the position that Daniels did when she was waiting for release from prison, with nowhere to go once they’re paroled.

“They’re low-level offenders, where they can’t go to a halfway house, they’re not eligible for that,” Vaala said. “And there’s no halfway house here for women – the closest is in Mason City.”

Vaala said there’s a big gap in this area of the state for that kind of support for women finishing their sentences.

“A probation officer might not approve of their plan (of where to live),” Vaala explained. “Or they have an addiction and they don’t have a place that’s stable to go to, so they’ll stay in longer than they should have, just because there’s nowhere for them to go.”

While Lotus serves women in all kinds of situations, Vaala said she hopes the transitional house helps those formerly-incarcerated women take the next step toward being healthy, independent and successful on their own.

“We see women come in and they’re so overwhelmed and they feel all this pressure, so we’re just trying to slow that down a little bit for them and maximize their potential,” she said. “People like Jamie, she’s got it, it’s just trying to make her feel like she’s got it.”

Over the past several months, the Lotus Community Project has been working hard with the help of many community volunteers to renovate the old house.

The house got all new flooring, with the exception of the kitchen. Vaala said that while the kitchen floor was “retro and outdated,” it was still in pretty good shape, so they decided to leave it as is.

For the rest of the house, volunteers from Valero Renewables and Elanco ripped up old carpeting and padding. Flooring America sold the new carpets to Lotus at cost, and even installed the flooring for free.

Valero and Elanco also painted the rooms and helped put up a couple of walls. Prairie Lakes Church helped move furniture into the two-story home.

“The Vincent Fire Department all pitched in and bought us a new fridge,” Vaala said. “And our board member Jane E. Morgan bought us a new stove.”

Richard Higgins, of Fort Dodge, donated a full wicker bedroom set for use in one of the bedrooms.

The Lotus Project also received a special gift from a former resident of the house.

Philip Moll spent much of his childhood living in the home while his father was pastor at the church from 1956 to 1967. Moll’s mother, Thelma, spent much of her time in the kitchen, he said. It was her favorite room in the house.

In honor of his mother, Moll donated $6,000 toward the renovations. That gift is commemorated with a small plaque on the kitchen wall.

While the house is move-in ready, it still needs some things for it to truly feel like “home,” Vaala said.

Lotus welcomes donations of any kind, but Vaala said the most-needed items for the transitional house right now are a washing machine and dryer, bedding and blankets for twin-sized and full-sized beds, home decor to brighten up the place and funds to help with the general upkeep.

Though she hasn’t been at the Lotus shelter for very long, Daniels is eager to move into the transitional house and take that extra step toward the rest of her life.

“It feels like I’m on my own, but I still have structure and the structure helps me,” Daniels said.

Daniels will move into the house within the next week or two. As the first person to move in, she had her pick of bedrooms. Her decision was a no-brainer – the one with a big picture window and lots of natural sunlight.


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