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Dec. 23, 2018
How does a small-town South Dakotan end up sleeping out of her car in Miami shortly after graduating high school?
Easier than you might think.
Desire Jansen is from Tea, graduated from Lennox High School and briefly attended USD as a theater major.
In 2004 at age 19, she took a trip to Florida, met a guy and got into a long-distance relationship.
“I was ready to see the world,” she said. “I was ready to take a leap of faith.”
Then, she moved to Florida, hoping to try her luck in the theater business, and moved in with him.
“Pretty much as soon as he got me into his space is when he started showing his true colors,” Jansen said.
“I had a gun to my head and a knife to my throat. It got bad really fast.”
She took her limited belongings, packed them in one suitcase into her car and ended up sleeping in a Walmart parking lot.
“Because it was the best lit and had security cameras,” she said. “Youthful ignorance and naivete didn’t allow my mind to filter what was really going on.”
She used her gym membership for a place to shower. And she didn’t tell anyone.
“I didn’t want to worry anybody here – my friends and family. If I had told anyone, they would have been devastated,” Jansen said.
But someone noticed.
A fellow receptionist where Jansen was working at a car dealership followed up when she learned her co-worker was showering at her gym and asked why.
“I said that’s the only place I have because I’ve been living out of my car,” she said. “And she said, ‘Absolutely not, you’re moving in with me,’ so pretty much that day I was given a couch to sleep on.”
That lasted seven months until she moved back to the Sioux Falls area. She just recently began talking about what happened to her nearly 15 years ago.
“This movement with abuse has been really great for women to start talking openly,” she said. “Your brain goes through something and compartmentalizes and pushes it away so you can move on. But there’s strength in numbers and just realizing people weren’t pushing me away. They were bringing me in. That was a huge thing.”
It’s been a big year for Jansen in more ways than one. In 2017, she started a microblading business out of a hair salon on the west side of Sioux Falls. In April, she moved GeminEye Studio into the Gourley Building at 400 N. Main Ave.
She’s the only studio devoted exclusively to microblading, which is a semipermanent cosmetic tattooing technique for eyebrows, applying pigment to the skin to create a natural, 3-D hair-like stroke.
“Just last year, I got certified in microblading, and it just exploded,” she said. “I have a background in art, I have been drawing for a few years, and there’s a lot of study of the face I’ve done.”
She’s also the only trainer in the upper Midwest and is teaching others in Des Moines and Minneapolis in addition to adding microblade artists at her studio.
“It’s crazy busy,” she said. “We are open six days a week, and I see 25 to 30 clients a week, just me, so the demand is super high in Sioux Falls.”
She’s now at a point where she can look back and appreciate the power in telling her story, she said.
There are all sorts of turns in life that can lead a young person to homelessness, from family dysfunction to abuse at home, aging out of foster care, exiting the juvenile justice system and economic hardship.
During the 2017-18 school year, the Sioux Falls School District identified 1,256 homeless students. That includes 102 people age 16 to 21.
“Youth homelessness looks different from adult homelessness for a variety of reasons,” said Stephanie Monroe, managing director of children, youth and family services for Volunteers of America, Dakotas.
“If you’re under 18, you can’t rent an apartment legally. They might not be able to access shelters. There are a lot of barriers, particularly as it relates to education completion, but the Sioux Falls School District is by far our largest referral source. These youths have every reason not to attend school every day, but they do – while living in cars or living on people’s couches – and it puts them at extremely high risk for exploitation, victimization and substance abuse because they don’t have stability.”
Jansen has seen it, too.
At one point in her career, she worked for the Sioux Falls School District, supporting Native American students. Her office was next to the one for homeless services.
She watched hundreds of students enter that room.
“And those were just the ones that were recognized in the Sioux Falls School District,” she said. “We donated coats and gloves and school supplies. There’s a huge need. When you’re that young, you don’t have a plan. You literally live day to day.”
To serve that young adult population and help them transition, Volunteers of America is in the middle of a fundraising campaign for its HomePlace project.
The home, which will be near Roosevelt High School, will replace an aging one near downtown that has space for only 10 residents. The new HomePlace will accommodate 21 residents and be supplemented with educational support, employment assistance, life-skills training and access to a professional staff 24 hours a day. Residents also will be connected to community resources and receive follow-up case management after they leave.
The project is the current community appeals campaign through the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, and the goal is to raise $1.25 million by the end of March 2019, toward an overall goal of $3.5 million. To learn more and contribute, click here.
VOA has a 60- to 90-day waiting list for its current HomePlace rooms, Monroe said.
“Often, people think this is a neighborhood issue or a downtown issue, and it really isn’t,” she added. “We receive referrals from Brandon and Harrisburg and Tea for this program.”
Success there is measured in a variety of ways, but the expectation is that participants complete their high school education and work on overall well-being and living skills. Eighty percent to 85 percent of residents experience improvement in those skills, she said, which is critical because the data around youth homelessness isn’t encouraging.
“If a young person has experienced one episode of homelessness once in their life, they’re 4.5 times more likely to experience it as an adult,” she said. “We think it puts a stopgap in that pattern to move people to self-sufficiency.”
Jansen hopes sharing her experience will show others a path like that is possible.
“I hope people know, first of all, to reach out,” she said. “If they’re in a situation, reach out to those closest to them because there might be resources closer than you think but also to people you can trust. And just know that it might take time to get your feet back on the ground, but it can happen. I feel like my life has been up and down and left and right, and eventually I found stability.”
And don’t forget, she said, how simply taking notice and asking questions could change the life of someone close to you.
“Your readers may not be able to relate to my story of abuse and manipulation or homelessness, but they might have someone in mind who needs their resources or even friendship,” she said. “They might want the best for every young person in our community. And if they remember that the smallest steps can lead to enormous momentum in a person’s life, they too can change a life, just like my friends in Florida did for me.”
At least 100 people age 16 to 21 are homeless in our community. But this woman proves what can happen when someone steps in to help.