Ott shelter helps family start over

By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator  

Perhaps Chrystella Mangrum finally hit bottom on a frigid January night in 2019, when the mercury was diving as the ebony of another long, dark night began to color Baton Rouge.  

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Chrystella Mangrum’s tumultuous year that started out with her being separated from her two young sons and living on the streets ended on a joyous note, when she was able to move into an apartment in Tigerland with her children in time to celebrate Christmas. Mangrum said she owed much of her success to Bishop Ott’s Sweet Dreams Shelter.  Photo by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator 


With nowhere to go, and temporarily separated from her two sons, Mangrum was roaming the streets, wondering where she would be able to lay her weary head and provide at least a brief respite for her aching body. She then saw a stack of folded boxes piled in the rear of a dollar discount store.  

Recognizing possibilities that many others would think as frightful, Mangrum first made a rudimentary mattress from the boxes and then put other boxes on top of her as a cover, although it offered little relief from the arctic blast.  

For a brief truce from battling the cold, she would walk to a nearby convenience store and soak in the warmth, before returning to her makeshift bed.  

“It got so bad I had to pretend I was getting coffee,” she said.  

Mangrum’s descent had actually begun several months earlier, when her mother passed away in Bogalusa and not long after Mangrum was evicted from the family home. She and her sons, 6 and 9 at the time, moved to Baton Rouge to live with her brother.  

After that arrangement faltered, Mangrum suddenly found herself on the street with her children. They would sleep at the bus station, or in the lobby of a Baton Rouge hospital.
“I was feeling so depressed; I felt hopeless,” said Mangrum, a native of Bogalusa. “We didn’t have nowhere to go.”  

One morning, a man that Mangrum said God brought into her life, saw her walking her children to school. It turned out his children attended the same school, and he began to bring them so they would not miss class. He also offered the family temporary shelter. 

“I would never had made it,” she said.  

During this same time, someone recommended that Mangrum try to get into the Bishop Stanley J. Ott Sweet Dreams Shelter operated by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which offers housing to mothers and their children. Initially, space was unavailable, but she was able to make ulterior living arrangements for her children, where they would stay for eight months.  

“I was very excited knowing the kids had somewhere to stay,” Mangrum said. “I kind of felt like I had hope but then again I didn’t. The state was about to take the kids.”  

In the meantime, she kept returning to Sweet Dreams, and her persistence paid off when on Feb. 1, 2019 she was able to secure a bed.  

Almost overnight, a life of despair  transformed into one of hope, into one of allowing herself to dream, carefully permitting thoughts of a future seep into a mind that had previously been dominated by thoughts of survival.  

Through the Sweet Dreams staff, she was able to land a job at a fast food restaurant Then the break she had been long seeking arrived at her doorstep when she was offered an opportunity to work at a mental health facility, an area particularly striking for Mangrum since her sister, whom she was helping take care of before landing on the street, suffers from a mental disorder.  

And the clinic was only a short walk from the shelter, a necessary convenience since she was without transportation.  

With her career as a medical technician at the clinic beginning to flourish, Mangrum’s focus turned to her children and doing what it would take to find permanent housing and reuniting her family. So she saved nearly every penny she earned, working double shifts when offered.

Fatigue was her constant companion but that wee bit of annoyance was eclipsed by the end goal, so agonizingly close yet seemingly so far away.  

“I did not get a lot of rest,” Mangrum admitted. “I was working a lot of overtime.”
By September, she had saved enough money to land an apartment, which she recently showed off with a pride that only few can appreciate. Outside of her apartment was a used car she was also able to purchase through her savings. 

“It feels great to have a roof over my head,” Mangrum said. “It’s so amazing, like it’s not real how far I have come. It feels like I’m in a mansion.  

“God is good, God is so good.”  

Admittedly she experienced some trepidation that first night in the apartment, even wondering that after being separated so long if her children would want to live with their mother.
“I was nervous, like it won’t be the same,” she said. “But it’s fine and it’s a blessing to have the kids. 

“The boys are happy here. They love it.”  

As she finally relaxes in a place she can call her own, Mangrum’s emotions straddle from the pain of the past to the jubilance of the present. Her voice occasionally cracks as she relives the past year or so but Mangrum is open as to how those experiences have changed her for the better.  

“I’m different now,” she said. “Especially like being on the streets with the homeless, I realized not to take life for granted.  

“And in the back of my mind, I thought it wasn’t real. I cried every day.”  

“It’s kind of strange how things happen,” she added. “I’m seeing life with a better view. If that had never happened, I would not be able to experience many of the spiritual things I have experienced. My faith has deepened.”  

While on the streets, she said she read a small Bible daily. During those times of difficulty, Mangrum said she believed in God and “he’s showing me that he’s real. He’s showing me a lot of visions, still to this day.”  

“He’s leading me,” she said. “This is the strongest my faith has ever been.”  

And she will forever be indebted to the Sweet Dreams Shelter staff, who not only gave her an escape from the homeless life but helped her forge a path for a bright future. She understands the shelter was the knot that helped tie family bonds that were temporarily fractured.  

“They helped with trying to find housing, helped me to get stable,” Mangrum said. “The main thing was they provided me a place to stay until I got myself together.”  

Consider that done.