For Many Homeless Families, a Tough Choice: Separation, or a Shelter Bed?

“There are lots of families sleeping in parks or in a car, or whatever it is, because it’s really important to them to keep the family dynamic intact.” Photo credit: Thinkstock.

When Sandra Cruz became homeless five years ago, she called a shelter asking for help.

The mother of five had separated from her husband, had been laid off from her job, and was having trouble paying rent in an expensive Orange County housing market.

The shelter offered to put a roof over her head, but on one condition—her daughter, then 16, couldn’t come with her. Shelter policy only allowed children under 13.

“They told me that I needed to send her to live with a family member, and then I would be welcome with my little ones,” she said of the Orange County shelter. “I said, ‘If I’m having a hard time, what kind of help will it be if I send her over to somebody else’s house and I stay here with the other kids in another place? What kind of help is that?’”

Cruz, 46, refused to separate from her children, so they continued living out of her car.

“I promised myself, it doesn’t matter how hard it gets, the important thing is to be together and to look out for each other,” she said. “We need to protect each other.”

According to homeless advocates, Cruz’s experience is common. Homeless Californians who are part of households with children too often have nowhere to go if they want to stay together. More than 21,000 families are homeless in California, accounting for 16 percent of the state’s total homeless population, according to last year’s U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development point-in-time count.

In addition to finding housing, homeless families must also find accommodations that keep the family intact, which in many parts of the state leaves them with few—if any—options.

Elizabeth Olvera, director of programs at Family Supportive Housing, a shelter for parents with children in San Jose, said that shelters often have strict rules for who can enter. Some, like the one Cruz called, don’t accept teenagers. Others accept only women or only men, and have age cut offs as young as 12 for children of the opposite sex.

While these rules are often intended to create a safe space for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault—often a reason why single mothers become homeless, she noted—the result is often additional stress and trauma for families.

“It’s a huge issue for many families because they need to be able to stick together to be successful, but right off the bat they’re being split up,” said Olvera. “It takes a huge amount of focus to be able to get past a lot of the barriers to being homeless, and they can’t really focus on those issues if they don’t know where their significant other is sleeping for the night, or if they even have any shelter.”

Nationally, one-tenth of homeless parents were separated from partners, and one-quarter from one or more of their children, according to a 2015 study in Child Welfare.

These kinds of shelter policies also mean that more families stay homeless, said Yvette Ahlstrom, director of housing for the Orange County nonprofit Illumination Foundation.

“There are lots of families sleeping in parks or in a car, or whatever it is, because it’s really important to them to keep the family dynamic intact,” she said. “And you’d have to respect that. If you’re homeless, the only thing you have left is your family.”

While some shelters across the state have developed family-friendly models—Family Supportive Housing and Illumination Foundation place families in their own private bedrooms with attached bathrooms, instead of the traditional dormitory style with all beds in a single open room, so that families of all sizes, ages and genders can stay together—these accommodations are still in short supply.

Santa Clara County, for example, had 7,394 homeless people last year, 74 percent of whom were unsheltered, according to the county’s point-in-time census. Family Supportive Housing, one of two family shelters in the entire county, offers 35 rooms.

“Our waitlist doesn’t stop,” said Olvera, adding that 100 families are in line for beds.

In Los Angeles, the demand for family housing is also soaring.

“Right now we’re seeing an upward trajectory in the number of families that are presenting themselves to us daily,” said Kris Freed, chief programs officer for the nonprofit LA Family Housing, explaining that the organization puts up to 160 families in motels each night because it doesn’t have enough rooms to meet the demand.

The lack of family shelters has other unintended consequences.

Kathy Ballard, a 57-year-old mother living at Union Rescue Mission, which serves homeless parents and children in Los Angeles, said that in order to stay at the shelter, which is one of the few options for families in the area, she had to relocate across the city, and then send her 10-year-old daughter to a new school.

While Ballard’s daughter said she enjoys the new school, Sheila Young, a program administrator at Union Rescue Mission, said the change can be difficult for others.

“With clients that I have and have encountered, when it’s time for their kids to go to school, they’ve already established their friends, and now they have to move and leave their friends,” said Young. “Their life is pretty much altered.”

But things are starting to change.

In 2009, Congress signed the HEARTH Act—Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing—which stipulates that federally funded shelters, transitional housing and permanent supportive housing programs must serve homeless families intact, and cannot deny entry to family members based on age or sex.

“It establishes the idea that keeping families together is considered a best practice in the field,” said Steve Berg, vice president of programs and policy for the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “In the long run, the family is going to be a greater resource to these children than the homeless shelter. So if you have a choice between policies that make it easier to run the homeless shelter and policies that make the family more intact, it’s vastly more important to keep the family as a functioning entity that supports the kid.”

Last year, HUD awarded $380 million in funding to 900 programs in California that are working to combat homelessness. Still, many shelters that rely instead on private funding continue to separate families based on age and gender requirements.

“People who run homeless shelters, when they create them, need to figure out a way to do their work differently—not ask the families what they can do differently,” Berg said.

Cruz agreed. “My wish is that if people have a shelter, that they think more about the families to try to keep the kids together,” she said.

After years of homelessness and housing insecurity, Cruz, who now works at a hotel, eventually found help through the Irvine nonprofit Families Forward, which assisted her in securing an apartment in Tustin two months ago. This spring, her 21-year-old daughter who was not allowed in the shelter with her five years ago will be graduating with honors from a college in San Francisco, and will start law school in San Diego in the fall.

“Now when she comes home, she can really say that she’s coming home,” Cruz said.

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