Anthony Velez, 13, is tired of trudging around the Tenderloin with his family to find something to eat that won’t give him a stomachache. He misses his mom’s home cooking.
“I’m used to having a refrigerator,” said the eighth grader at Everett Middle School. He’s at a diner across the street from the Hamilton House, where he, his mother, and three siblings live. Anthony had stayed home sick from school that day because of a bad stomachache so they decided to skip out on the dining room’s tuna casserole and find something easier to digest.
“It’s like I’m confined in a box,”Melissa Velez, Anthony’s mom, said. “I feel enclosed, and the children feel that way too.”
She hates that her family has to sit on the floor or on their beds while spending time together in their single room. They used to have a living room. They used to have a couch. She used to be able to make Anthony herbal tea when he got an upset stomach.
Anthony now has a difficult time getting up and out the door. He was comfortable in their house of 10 years at 21st and Florida streets, and he doesn’t like the Tenderloin. But more than the neighborhood, he doesn’t like being homeless.
Reina Cruz-Velasquez can tell him that it doesn’t get easier. Her family — including Wanda, 9, and Hector, 13 — has been homeless for almost four years.
“It’s difficult in the shelter because you have no private life,” Cruz-Velasquez said while fighting back tears. “The kids would like to live better. They want to have a kitchen, living room, a bedroom.”
As is the case in many American cities, the number of homeless families in San Francisco — many from the Mission and Bayview — is on the rise.
The San Francisco Unified School District counts more than 2,000 homeless students in its schools — an increase of more than 200 since 2010. The numbers include children who are living on the streets or out of cars but also those in shelters, friends’ garages, single-room-occupancy hotels, or doubled up with other families.
Officials acknowledge that the numbers fail to reflect the many families — ashamed or just weary — who never report being homeless and instead rely on friends and relatives for help.
The stories of the two families — one newly homeless and one homeless for four years — offer a glimpse into the lives of what it is like to be young and homeless.
Both families have children who still attend school in the Mission, and in 2013, both spent time living out of a car. Neither family wants to leave the city, but neither can find a permanent home.
For the time being, the two families are trying to survive within the shelter system — a system that now has 27 private rooms for families, who, like the Velez family, are in transition. There are also 46 beds for one night or 60-day stays.
Work Slows, a Husband’s Death and a Survivor’s Illness
Cruz-Velasquez and her two children lost their Haight Street apartment in 2010 when she could no longer afford to pay the $1,185 rent. Until then, she survived by taking care of senior citizens, cleaning their homes, taking them on walks, or escorting them to medical appointments.
But work slowed and rent became impossible to make.
For awhile Cruz-Velasquez and her children stayed with friends, with the parents of her kids’ classmates, and even with her daughter’s teacher. But when their hospitality ran out, the family moved into St. Joseph’s Family Center, an emergency shelter at Guerrero and 21st streets where 10 families live.
Soon after, Cruz-Velazquez, a short woman who wears comfortable clothes and slippers in the confines of the shelter, became ill with a pulmonary embolism, or a clot in her lung, as Dr. Ana Valdes at the St. Anthony Medical clinic described it in a note.
“She has bleeding problems from the treatment,” the note, which Cruz-Valazquez shared, explained.
Her doctors have suggested Cruz-Velazquez, now 40 years old, not carry more than five pounds at a time and that she rest after climbing half a flight of stairs.
She tried to work in a store when she was first diagnosed, but the manager quickly noticed how she tired easily, she said. She left after it became apparent that she could not do the work.
After two months at St. Joseph’s, the family moved to the Compass Clara House in Hayes Valley, a temporary shelter that helps families find long-term housing. After 18 months, permanent housing never happened. The family lived out of a car for 12 days this fall and then returned to St. Joseph’s. This time, they were five including her new husband and Reina’s 23-year-old cousin.
They live in a single room with five beds.
As her health has deteriorated, so has her family’s situation. When their mother is in the hospital, which is more frequent these days, the children want to stay with her.
“I don’t want to do work,” said nine-year-old Wanda, who likes science class because she can learn about different animals.
Hector, an 8th grader at the International Studies Academy, wears a mohawk and puts on a face that tells others not to mess with him. But he becomes visibly upset when asked about homework or his life at St. Joseph’s.
Tears well in his eyes and he shuts down, brightening a bit when asked about his favorite sport: soccer. He plays forward and roots for Barcelona’s professional team. He dreams of getting a scholarship to attend Riordan High School, a private all-boys school. It’s an idea that came from his tutor at the Boys and Girls club where he and his sister often go after school.
His mother said it remains to be seen if he ends up applying. She has a lot to consider, as she has another child on the way.
An Eviction on the First Day of School
Velez and her four children were evicted from their home of 10 years at 21st and Florida last fall on the first day of school. Their landlord wanted to raise their rent from $2,250 to $2,900.
Velez, then getting money from a Section 8 Indian Public Housing voucher, couldn’t afford the increase, so for two months the family lived out of a car. The kids stopped going to school.
In October, Velez finally got a spot at the Hamilton House, where they can live until March according to their voucher.
Her four children range in age from 19 years to eight months old, with 13-year-old Anthony and his 14-year-old sister in the middle. Her 19-year-old son has special needs and spends most of his time with Melissa.
Anthony likes physics and Photoshop. He wants to be a graphic designer for a video game company one day, but ever since his family became homeless even getting to school has been difficult.
“It feels weird coming from the Tenderloin,” he said.
School Suffers First
Sarah White, a nurse at Bryant Elementary School, said general malaise is a common problem for homeless students.
“Getting to school on time or at all is an issue,” White said. “When students have to figure out a new route or are not sleeping well, it can really affect attendance.”
White also noted that the homeless students she sees often have psychosomatic illnesses.
“They come in for headaches and stomachaches, but they really just want a moment with the nurse or someone they know before going back into the classroom,” she said.
Cruz-Velasquez knows the symptoms well. Her children didn’t want to wake up in the mornings when they were living in a car.
“Grades are completely affected if they aren’t here, but even if they are here because they are worried and stressed because they don’t know where they are going to sleep that night,” said Meghan Graber, a social worker at Everett.
Anthony doesn’t know what his grades will look like yet. He signed up to get a tutor at school, but that hasn’t come through. He attended after-school programs last year, but hasn’t continued them.
Only one of his school friends knows he is living in a shelter because he is embarrassed for too many of his peers to know.
“I don’t really talk about it with anyone at school because it’s a personal thing,” he said.
Reina Cruz-Velazquez said her children don’t have many friends and are often bullied at school for being poor.
The bullying becomes so bad for Hector that he sometimes leaves school in the middle of the day to avoid it. He goes to a park off Geneva Street to play soccer instead, according to his mother. She asked her son why he just doesn’t come home, and he told her that there is nothing for him to do at the shelter.
While Anthony said that he is friendly with the social workers at the Wellness Center at Everett, he doesn’t think it is the school’s job to help him or his family.
“I don’t want anyone random involved or anything,” he said.
Schools Can Only Do So Much
The school district can provide backpacks, school supplies, bus passes and counseling to those who identify themselves as homeless to the schools through the Families and Youth in Transition program, but they cannot provide homes.
Some schools in the Mission are beginning to get more involved, however.
Cassandra Coe, the director of early intervention at the Mission’s Instituto Familiar de la Raza, works directly to help schools learn how to better accommodate the challenges that homeless students face.
She said that more children are presenting the behavioral and social difficulties that often accompany homelessness.
One of the major problems, she said, is that teachers have large classes and can become easily frustrated with students who are acting out without realizing that the child is facing bigger problems.
“If you don’t know the context of the families,” Coe explained, “you can lose empathy.”
Cruz-Velasquez said that her children are quick to get angry, sometimes taking it out on their teachers.
Hector sees the world through the eyes of many 13-year-olds. Teachers are mean or nice, and he likes the subjects that the nicer ones teach. Although he sometimes wishes the school could do more to help him, he doesn’t like to talk about being homeless.
Bryant Elementary has given his eight-year-old sister Wanda a mentor who checks in with her regularly, and the school’s social worker, Brigitte Knight has said she would try and help her family find housing, but there’s only so much the school system can do.
What no one can do quickly is change the numbers on shelter wait lists.
San Francisco had 274 families on shelter wait lists in October, up from 221 in October 2012. Five years ago, there were only 99 families on the wait list.
In early December, the number dropped to 189 largely because of the opening of 72 permanent housing units at Bayview Hill Gardens.
Cruz-Velasquez said that her caseworker has filled out the paperwork to move her to another shelter, but her doctors are encouraging her to find permanent housing.
For most of January, Velez’s phone was shut down and unreachable. The school had also been unable to reach her and said Anthony’s attendance has been sporadic. Before the holidays, the school wanted to give the Velez family some presents and food that they had collected, but they could not be found.
In mid-December, Velez said her kids would often say things like, “Mom, I don’t care if we leave San Francisco. We can’t live like this anymore.”
The Velez family recently found affordable housing in Oakland and will soon move across the bay.