Daniela Mercado, 26, sat cross-legged on a motel bed, biting her nails as she watched her three children play on the floor with a toy truck. It took her a moment to remember all the places they have stayed over the past five months. There was her friend’s apartment, the emergency shelter, their four-door Volvo and the brief stint at San Francisco General Hospital when her infant got an ear infection. The worst stretch was the two months they spent sleeping in the Volvo.
“The nights are cold and the heater isn’t enough,” she said.
Now Mercado and her children are at the Amazon, a 21-room motel on Mission Street in San Francisco’s Excelsior District. They’ve been here for six days, and she has enough cash to pay for one more week, thanks to the Department of Human Services’ CalWorks financial aid program. Then it’s back to the Volvo, in which case she’ll have to find some extra blankets, she said.
Five months ago they were living in Oakland with the father of her two youngest children. He was working as a welder and she was able to stay at home with the kids. Everything changed when Mercado’s boyfriend was fired for being undocumented. After losing his job he abandoned the family, and they haven’t seen him since.
Unable to pay rent, Mercado drove her children to the Mission District to stay with a friend for a few weeks.
“It’s our first time without a home,” she said.
Mercado’s family is one of 229 on the waiting list for long-term shelter placement with Compass Connecting Point, a San Francisco nonprofit that links families to private rooms in city-funded shelters. All told, there are 59 shelter rooms for families and an estimated 1,614 homeless family members among the city’s 6,455 homeless people.
“The economy has certainly impacted our waiting list,” said Elizabeth Ancker of Compass Connecting Point. “We see a lot of families who were stable at one point but who were evicted from their apartments following a layoff.”
This month saw the highest number of families on the waiting list since the organization started keeping track in 2006.
“There are some homeless families that never access any services who are not included in the count,” Ancker said. “But for the most part, Compass Connecting Point is seen as the front door for any family facing homelessness in the city.”
Families are waiting up to six months to be placed, according to Ancker. In the meantime, they’re sleeping wherever they can.
“They are often couch-surfing, sleeping in their cars, or staying in emergency overnight shelters,” she said. “The reality is we have 420 children on our waiting list right now with no guaranteed place to sleep tonight.”
If they get a bed in an emergency shelter one night, there’s no guarantee for a second night. That means families end up on the streets, oftentimes with newborn babies and small children.
Once placed in one of the 59 private shelter rooms, they are eligible to be assigned a case manager who will help them find permanent housing. But as long as they are on the waiting list, they’re out of luck.
“Families cannot afford to wait the six months … so they drop out of contact, move out of state, move back in with an abuser, or lose custody of their children before they can access that case management and get into housing,” Ancker wrote in an e-mail. “If housing case management was available from the start, it would divert many families from needing to go into a shelter placement at all.”
Emergency drop-in centers like the Oshun Center at 13th and Mission streets offer a variety of services to homeless women and children, but not beds. While clients don’t have access to mattresses, some women have been sleeping on yoga mats for the past several months, according to Lynette Schmindt, a staff member at the drop-in center.
“Right now we are seeing something very scary and very alarming: The emergency overnight shelters are filling up,” Ancker said. “For the first time in history … families are reporting that they are unable to leave the center during the day or they will risk losing their spot and risk not having a roof over their head at night.”
So where can homeless families find a bed in the Mission District? There are two common choices, according to Jorge Portillo, program coordinator of Mission SRO Collaborative: Leave or find a place in one of the Mission’s 50 single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels.
“We’ve seen a lot of families that realized they just can’t live in San Francisco,” Portillo said. The ones that stay in the Mission do it out of necessity because they don’t want to pull their kids out of school, he said.
Rather than leave the city, other poverty-stricken Mission families are choosing to pack into SRO hotels, which is the last stop before ending up on the street, Portillo said.
But Daniela Mercado can’t afford an SRO hotel right now, so she was forced to leave the neighborhood. She started driving south on Mission Street until she found a motel that was under $60 per night.
Since her car ran out of gas last week, Mercado and her kids have been taking the bus from the Amazon Motel to the Mission each morning so that her 5-year-old daughter can attend Flynn Elementary School on Cesar Chavez Street.
“It’s a great school and I don’t want her to leave it,” Mercado said.
While her daughter is in class, Mercado takes her two infants to Garfield Park.
Sometimes she considers going back to her hometown in Jalisco, Mexico. But things are worse there, she said. She isn’t concerned about her ex-boyfriend, her family back in Mexico, or the price of gasoline.
“All I’m worried about are my kids,” she said as she watched them scramble up the side of a nearby jungle gym.