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Temporary shelter serves growing number of unhoused women in Canton

A woman stands in front of a microwave. Another stands by a table against the wall. A third woman sits at a table.
Kelly Krabill
Ideastream Public Media
Women staying at Refuge of Hope's women's shelter heat their food in the microwave. The shelter opened Dec. 4.

April Nolf sits down a little after 8 p.m. to eat her first meal of the day. She’s unhoused. She’s been staying at a women’s emergency shelter in Canton since it opened Dec. 4.

“It was hard to get in here, though,” Nolf said. “I’ve been on the hotline for a minute. This time it’s been 120 days.”

Two people sit at a table with water bottles, eating off paper plates.
Kelly Krabill
Ideastream Public Media
April Nolf has been unhoused for two years.

Folks in need of shelter have to call the homeless hotline in Stark County to get registered. There’s a priority list that moves people up in line, like those with children or medical needs.

The shelter is about a mile down the road from Refuge of Hope, a faith-based nonprofit organization offering the shelter services. Refuge of Hope also serves hot meals for those in need, has a clothing ministry and provides shelter for up to 60 unhoused men.

The women’s shelter can accommodate eight women.

“We want to make sure that every lady feels loved and cared for and that they’re the most important person in the room at that time,” said Jo Ann Carpenter, the director of development at Refuge of Hope, who has been at the shelter every day.

The nightly shelter, open from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., is a two-story house provided by Lighthouse Ministries, a nonprofit organization that serves youth in Canton. The house has a living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom and two bedrooms with four bunk beds. Women receive clean underwear and socks each night along with clean linens and towels.

Christy Lee has been unhoused for more than a year. She couch surfed, slept in tents and lived in her car until she ran out of options and had to stay outside.

“If I wasn’t at the shelter I'd be on the street with God knows who, doing God knows what and God knows what happening,” Lee said.

Kelly Engler finished a three month stay at the YWCA last month. When she gets to the house the first thing she does is “take that bag off and eat something.”

“I get warm and relax finally. That’s a lot of walking around out there all day,” Engler said.

“Our refrigerator and freezer are stuffed right now, which is amazing,” said Heather Zartman, the manager of the women’s shelter.

On the night the shelter opened they had less food in stock than they do now, she said.

“More than having a warm place to stay, they were excited they had food,” Zartman said.

Community partners helped fund the expansion. Sisters of Charity in Canton gave $5,000. Stark Community Foundation is funding up to $30,000. The foundation gave $10,000 up front with a plan to reassess the need in January. Funding could continue through March 31.

There has been an increase of single women showing up at the front desk of Refuge of Hope the last several months asking for a place to stay, said Scott Schnyders, the shelter director.

Two sets of bunk beds, each covered with a colorful quilt.
Kelly Krabill
Ideastream Public Media
The women take showers each night, turn the lights off by midnight and wake up to coffee brewing in the morning.

“We don't have any resources to offer them,” he said. “We have nowhere to send them if it's after 4:30. And knowing that if we don't have any resources, they have no options. We can’t even offer them something like, ‘Oh, you can go here and solve your problem.’ And so, enough of those experiences made it clear that this is an issue for single women who are trying to get out of the cold.”

The average number of single women without shelter registered with the homeless hotline between October 2022 to October 2023 was 26 women, which is high, Schnyders said.

“There’s probably double the amount of people total in our system as to what it was, would have been a year ago,” he added.

The Stark County Continuum of Care operates the homeless hotline.

There are more single women calling the hotline said Stark County Continuum of Care Executive Director Marcie Bragg. With too few shelters serving women without children, there’s a gap.

Four streets up from Refuge of Hope in downtown Canton, DaNicca Baker has three empty beds that will be filled that day.

“They’re ready,” Baker said. “We just need the referrals.”

Baker is waiting on the names from the hotline. She’s the director of housing and supportive services at the YWCA in Canton. It’s the largest women’s shelter in Stark County. The average monthly occupancy rate is about 94%. It’s usually full in the winter.

Other options for unhoused single women in Stark County include Alliance for Children and Families and Family Living Center in Massillon. Though, both shelters have fewer beds than the 42 available at the YWCA.

Since Refuge of Hope opened the women’s shelter, the number of those waiting for a warm place to stay has decreased to around five unsheltered women, so there is still a need, Bragg said. But the number changes daily.

Refuge of Hope is looking into the possibility of opening a permanent women’s shelter.

If you're seeking shelter, call any of the following hotlines: Stark County 330-452-4363; Summit County 330-615-0577 and Cuyahoga County 216-674-6700.

Kelly Krabill is a multiple media journalist at Ideastream Public Media. Her work includes photography and videography. Her radio and web reporting covers a wide range of topics across Northeast Ohio.