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'It took everything from me:' Mom's journey out of addiction, homelessness

And how COVID-19 impacted River of Refuge
Michelle Baker
Posted at 10:32 AM, Jun 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-22 11:32:15-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Michelle Baker packed up her belongings in an apartment at River of Refuge in January.

She said she had never been more excited to move.

Baker was 14 months sober after decades of battling addiction.

“It took everything from me. I lost my house, had to send my kids away to my sister’s. I was homeless, just using and lost,” she said. “I hit my knees and prayed to God to help me and I went to treatment. From there I wasn’t really sure what I was gonna do because like I said, I had all the debt piled up.”

After treatment, she turned to River of Refuge, where families facing homelessness get help with a place to stay, pantry staples and a program to follow. That program requires them to work and stay drug-free as well as take classes on budgeting and parenting.

“It’s not easy. They’re put on a very strict budget, and it’s all needs, no wants,” said executive director Pamela Seymour. “Most of them have been living in their cars or in one-room hotel rooms, pay by the night.”

In January, Seymour told 41 Action News that River of Refuge had 10 apartments with a waiting list of at least 20 to 30 families, an increase from their 10 to 15 family average. She said the waitlist now is still longer than usual.

“I had actually lost my job because of COVID-19,” Baker said.

“Many of our families who came in 2020 lost their jobs when COVID started,” said Seymour, adding that the pandemic changed a lot for their organization.

While finding funding and families finding jobs is easier now than it was six months ago, Seymour said their families are still staying longer than usual and still struggling to find affordable housing to move to.

“The families come and they stay four to six months on average, although last year, many of our families stayed nine months," she explained.

In January, they were hoping to renovate their second floor to add more, larger apartments. Now Seymour said with help from a tax credit, they hope construction on eight more units will begin soon.

Both Seymour and Baker believe people have a misconception about who faces homelessness.

“We have people who have gone through our program that are professionals, that are respiratory therapists, who are nurses, you know, highly educated people,” Seymour said. “But for reasons, many times not in their control, you know high medical bills that have bankrupted them and so forth, you know, life has happened."

41 Action News checked back in with Baker in May.

“Sober life rocks,” she said as she played Frisbee with her daughter in her backyard.

She is still sober, living on her own, and back with her kids.

“It’s just awesome, I can’t even explain I just know two years ago I never would have thought my life would be where it is today and it’s all by the grace of God," Baker said.