A residence in the Central West End has had the reputation of catering to poor and low-income women for years. But now, the organization's work to house middle-aged and elderly women with mental illnesses and, in some cases, formerly homeless women, is vital in a city seeking to address its issues around homelessness.
The Mary Ryder Home, 4361 Olive St., isn’t a nursing home or an independent senior-living facility. It gives women over age 55 who can no longer afford to live on their own — either because of mental health issues or financial problems — a place to stay. Permanently.
“It seems like people think that [the] homeless [population] really consists of drug addicts [and] the veterans, but you really don’t hear about the elderly,” said Terry Jones-Signaigo, associate administrator and volunteer coordinator. “They’re out there, and I really don’t think anybody has a true number on how many people are out there.”
In the 2016 statewide study on homelessness by the Public Policy Research Center at the University of Missouri St. Louis, most adults in emergency shelters or transitional housing were between ages 18 and 50.
Debra Johnson, 62, used to be homeless. She started living at Mary Ryder Home in October after a series of hardships placed her there. She is one of 58 residents.
“I lost a couple jobs through no fault of my own,” Johnson said, while sitting on the edge of a twin bed in her room. “And then I got a divorce and things kind of rolled downhill.”
An Indiana native with a college degree and a license to practice accounting, Johnson was living in her car after being laid off from jobs, getting a divorce and receiving a diagnosis of an incurable lung disease. She moved to St. Louis from Florida for treatment.
“There’s a lot of middle-aged women out there that need a forever home, and that’s the wonderful thing that actually helped me get better with my health — knowing that I had some place to live until I died,” Johnson said.
Homelessness isn’t the full picture
Mary Ryder Home has served low-income women since the 1930s. Over time, the needs of residents have changed.
Jones-Signaigo is the great-granddaughter of Mary Ryder and has worked at the home doing different jobs since she was a teenager, including maintenance. She said back then, the home would provide housing to mostly poor women without children, and widows.
Now, she said all the women there are not only financially incapable of caring for themselves, but they also have documented mental illnesses. Some of those problems include depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Tim Butler, the home's executive director, calls the population of women, mostly between ages 56 and 75, invisible, to some degree.
Some women at the residence were referred there by short-term emergency housing such as the Missionaries of Charity, a home run by Roman Catholic nuns in north St. Louis. Other women were referred by area hospitals and clinics such as BJC Behavioral Health.
This network of agencies and organizations working together brings to light a complex Venn diagram of issues beyond unstable housing that continues in St. Louis. In the case of Mary Ryder Home, the overlapping circles of the diagram include aging, gender, poverty and mental health.
Jones-Signaigo said in addition to mental health problems, not having enough money to cover the cost of rent — even if it’s subsidized housing — groceries, utilities, transportation and needed medicine can be a burden. The Social Security Administration reported in 2017 retired workers received an average of $1,369 a month in benefits.
“That money goes really quick, really fast,” Jones-Signaigo said. “Now you got to make a decision. Are you gonna pay for medicine, or are you gonna pay for food?” she questioned.
But 15 percent, or about nine residents, don’t receive an income. For those who do, their checks don’t cover the total cost of care. The home receives donations, is supported by the United Way and receives some state and federal money.
Jones-Signaigo believes there is another less-quantifiable issue at play: how families treat the aging process. She estimates that a third of the residents came from loving, supportive families who couldn’t afford care. Another third, she figures, came from abusive environments.
“You’re talking financially, sexually, mentally, physically. We’ve seen it all,” she said.
For some women, the home is a place to find renewed strength. Debra Johnson said she plans to find an apartment of her own when she is well enough. She keeps busy by leading a history discussion group with some of the residents.
For other residents, like Estelle Chapey, 73, who’s lived there for six years, it’s a place to make new memories. She’s a member of the building’s choir. Using a walker to aid her back to her room, she shows off the few possessions she has: some angel figurines and pictures of her late husband, her parents and friends. Chapey makes a point to acknowledge she has her own television.
“So that’s my home,” she said, looking around her room. “I don’t have no place else to live. The old house was no good. I didn’t like it. But I’m happy here.”
Ashley Lisenby is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland (Oregon). Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby.