This post was originally published on St. Louis American

By Sylvester Brown Jr.

Ramona Brown, 47, clutched the box of Kleenex tightly in her left hand as she spoke through halting breaths. She dabbed at her eyes and nose, often with a single, crumpled, soggy tissue as she recounted a series of events that invaded her already vulnerable life in 2020.

“Life…sometimes it’s up, sometimes it’s down. But I refuse to go down.” 

– Ramona Brown, on her feelings about her post-pandemic future

When the global coronavirus pandemic began to spread in March of that year, Brown was already battling the epidemic of violence surrounding the house she had rented in Dellwood for eight years. Drug activity and violence had punctuated her neighborhood. At one point, she counted 46 bullet holes in her home.

As a single mother and home-care health worker, it was tough making ends meet. By the end of 2020, Brown’s landlord had threatened to evict her and her four school-aged children.

“Everything shut down,” she said, recalling how her job was no longer sending caregivers to clients’ homes because of the pandemic. She was homeless for a while until government stimulus money allowed her and the kids to stay at the Comfort Inn in Hazelwood.

After the stimulus money ran out, Brown and her children stayed at a temporary emergency service agency for about two weeks. It was overcrowded, and she was asked to leave. But she was told of another place she and her family could find lodging.

So, in July 2021, Brown turned to Room at the Inn in Bridgeton, a shelter for women, children, and families who are homeless.

“They made us feel at home when we first walked through the door,” she said, sharing her first impressions of shelter.

“They gave us a room with beds, sheets, comforters, and clothes and t-shirts for the kids. We literally slept for the first time in a year and a half. They gave us soap and detergent; the good stuff, like I buy in the store. We had the seven-dollar-a-bottle good-smelling Dove for our clothes. That stuff matters.”

Through tears, Brown discussed the therapy she received at the agency. It was something she thought she didn’t need, but discovered by just talking with other mothers was that she was carrying around a lot of guilt.

“I’m the mother. I’m supposed to be the one who prevents things from happening to my kids,” she said.  

Most of 2021 was a rebuilding period for Ramona. With the help of staffers at the shelter, Ramona was on the rebound. She was able to rebuild her credit, get a late model Kia Rondo XL vehicle and enroll her children in the Pattonville School District.

In December, however, COVID paid another visit to Brown and her family. It started with one of her older children and swept through the family. She and her youngest kids couldn’t stay at the shelter, so they quarantined at her grandmother’s house. All recovered and were back at Room at the Inn in January 2022.

Neither Brown nor her kids are vaccinated. Even though they had COVID, she’s still against vaccinations.

“I just think it’s a money scheme,” she confessed.

The virus aside, Brown’s life is still on the upswing. Through a state grant, administrators were able to get her a full time job as a sanitation specialist at Room at the Inn. They also helped her secure a 4-bedroom apartment at Bentwood Townhomes in North County.

Angela Hamilton, the client coordinator with Room at the Inn, gives much of the credit to  Brown and her children, who she described as well-behaved and a “joy to be around.” Through counseling, hard work and taking advantage of all the resources available at the shelter, Ramona made the positive difference in her life, Hamilton added.

David Weber, executive director at Room at the End, described Brown as a “success story.” The agency has had many. The formula is simple, Weber explained.

“Our clients are usually referred to us. If any client is willing to go through our intake process and understand our rules, we can give them hope, we give them immediate relief.”

The nonprofit agency was founded in 1993 and was originally sponsored by the Sisters of Divine Providence. They can offer a wide range of services for women and families through its network of volunteers, donors and collaboration with dozens of other nonprofit agencies committed to helping the less fortunate.

Weber said that even during COVID, they were able to place families in permanent homes.  In fact, due to COVID restrictions, the agency was no longer able to send clients to participating churches for shelter as usual. So, they converted office spaces on the complex to one room, temporary homes for the clients. Through their partnerships they were able to secure beds, furniture, TVs in every room and meals for their clients. Residents share bathrooms and a common kitchen. The agency doesn’t demand that their clients be vaccinated but it does offer incentives, like gift cards, if they do.

Weber is proud of Brown’s progress, but he worries about her and other clients who’ve left the shelter. The grant for Brown’s job won’t last forever. Weber said he’s working to raise funds to hire someone to stay in touch with clients and make sure they’re navigating life outside the confines of the shelter.

As for Brown, she prays that she’s beyond the challenges that COVID introduced into her fragile world. She said Room at the Inn and continuous therapy has left her with tough resolve.

“Life…sometimes it’s up, sometimes it’s down. But I refuse to go down again.”