Thirteen and Homeless — Anthony’s Not Alone

The Velez family tries to decide what to do about dinner. Photo by Andra Cernavskis

The Velez family tries to decide what to do about dinner. Photo by Andra Cernavskis

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-Velazquez 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-Velazquez 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-Velazquez 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-Velazquez 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-Velazquez 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-Velazquez 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.

Uncertain Future

Cruz-Velazquez 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.

59 Comments

  1. nutrisystem

    I feel so sorry for that Tim Perkins. The man suffers so much – unfairly taxed by the evil government, and ALWAYS… that nagging dread of feeling resented just because he’s successful.

  2. poor.ass.millionaire

    WRT Velez, note to self: don’t have 4 kids if you’re poor. OTOH she made the sensible decision to move to a less expensive city, Oakland.

    Channelling John this a.m.

    • Blexxxxch

      You are so blind. Wow. Do you know anything about her situation? Have fun being a robot.

    • C. Russo

      You’re all heart, Mr. Sanctimonious. If you read the article, you’d know the Velezes weren’t always poor.

      No, only the rich should lead normal lives. And the poor should do what the rich tell them to without complaint.

      i guess the only answer for these families now is infanticide, right?

      • John

        Pointing out that people should make prudent decisions based on their fiscal limitations seems like good advice for anyone.

        • nutrisystem

          The owning class loves to hate on low income folks and their “excessive” number of children.

          They hate them, that is, until they need to exploit some cheap labor.

          • John

            I saw no hate here. Just compassion, empathy and a desire to impart advice to avoid such situations arising.

            The only class-based hate I see is that being directed at the successful by the envious.

        • Jesse

          It’s generally good advice, but in this case it’s smug and condescending.

          • John

            Jesse, I didn’t sense that at all in poor.ass’s counsel. His words came across as measured, empathetic and reflective.

      • Like if there were no rich people, the poor would not be poor? Yeah right, those rich people are the problem….

  3. Christine

    I’m very relieved they found more affordable housing on the other side of the bay. I understand that it’s hard to leave the city, but it’s so much more important for the children to have a home than to live in San Francisco.

    Also, I’m a successful graphic designer working for a tech company, and I would love to know if there is anything I can do to help Anthony pursue his interest.

    • John

      Yes, I have far more respect for those who take responsibility for their own situation and do something about it, by relocating, than I do for those who whine that others should subsidize them eternally.

    • nutrisystem

      To pursue his interests at his new home in Oakland, Anthony could probably use a Macbook Air and, to defend it, a Glock 9mm pistol and a bullet-proof vest.

      • John

        Stereotyping an entire city is always unfortunate. When that stereotype involves presenting a population with a large black population as being criminal and violent, it is particularly distasteful.

        There are parts of Oakland that have less crime than parts of San Francisco. Generalizations will get you into a lot of trouble.

        • nutrisystem

          OK then John, if you’re not too scared, go visit them at their new home and new schools, then report back to us on how lovely and safe Oakland is.

          • John

            What’s your solution here, nutrisystem?

            That not only should the family get a cheap apartment (subsidized by the owner of course and not by the city) but also that the home should be in a white area in order to enjoy a low crime rate?

            Is that it?

          • landline

            The race baiter is at it again.

          • John

            landline, you should have read the entire thread before starting on the personal attacks again.

            Nutrisystem was the one who claimed that mostly-black Oakland has a high crime rate. Take up that connection with him not me, as I made no such statement.

          • landline

            nutrisystem’s comments were unhelpful. However, only you mentioned race.

          • John

            So Oakland’s alleged crime problem is unrelated to race? Is that your final answer?

            If so, why does nutrisystem want this family to live in a less “diverse” location?

          • nutrisystem

            Odds are, this family isn’t going to the Oakland Hills or Piedmont, but to the ghetto. Based on personal experience at ghetto living, I can assure you there is crime there, lots of it. I’m not speculating here about why that is, just stating the cold facts: it’s going to be difficult, maybe even physically dangerous, for those kids there.

          • John

            nutrisystem, so you oppose gentrification and love diversity, and yet you want the Velez family to live in a more gentrified, less diverse area for their safety?

    • Monica

      Christine – I hope you find a way to locate Anthony and offer your support.

      It is nice to be able to post our commentaries on other’s unfortunate situations, caused by either their own poor choices or by events outside their control. But that doesn’t improve anyone’s situation.

    • City

      I agree Christine, as a parent i would sacrifice SF in a heartbeat rather than have my daughter suffer like that….its too bad

      • John

        It’s fairly common for people to leave SF when they have kids. It’s not just the expense of running a place with 3-4 bedrooms, but also the quasi-racialist school busing system that SFUSD uses.

        For many parents, the choice is either private school or moving to a town with neighborhood schools.

  4. Jesse

    So many assholes in this city. Why is every comment section filled with people blaming poor people for their situation? There is so much money here, but so little generosity. Who cares why the mother is poor, let’s go buy some toys for these kids, make sure they aren’t hungry. Let’s set up scholarships so these kids can go to college. Let’s teach all of the kids in Bayview and Hunters Point to code so they can have the opportunity to get the jobs that are being created in their hometown.

    If you grew up in a nice house in the suburbs and your parents bought you a car, paid for your college tuition, maybe subsidized your post college life while looking for a job… you don’t get to say your success is the result of just your hard work! You aren’t better than these people, you just had more resources and opportunities.

    It isn’t the tech jobs that are causing problems, it’s the people moving here to take them. Far too many people want to take as much as they can from San Francisco but have very little interest in giving back.

    • poor.ass.millionaire

      And what exactly are you doing about this Jesse? All I see is you running your mouth, like self medicated empathy. Feeling better now?

      • Jesse

        The classic “well what are you doing about it” response, well played buddy, well played.

        Please see the first sentence of my post, then look in a mirror.

        • John

          Jesse, your rant has been debunked. You want the “assholes” to do something so that you don’t have to.

          I happen to agree with you that the Velez family seem to be worthy candidates for charity. What you were saying beyond that is unclear.

          • Jesse

            Debunked? When? How exactly would you know my motivation? I volunteer with a non-profit in the Tenderloin, I know people like the Velez family, that isn’t a unique story in this city unfortunately.

            As for the rest of my statement, it’s very clear, you’re being intentionally obtuse.

          • John

            Jesse, nobody was questioning the sincerity of your sympathy here. But where that went beyond that to calling people “assholes” and demanding that other people fix problems like this, you lost your audience.

            Hectoring others is no substitute for the tangible expression of compassion on the ground.

          • landline

            Facts and evidence are meaningless to the haters: http://blog.sfgate.com/morford/2014/02/18/how-to-eat-an-internet-troll/.

            Volunteerism, community spirit and cooperation are to the mammon worshippers as daylight is to vampires.

            Keep up the good work, Jesse.

          • John

            Ah yes, that old trick. When losing a debate, accuse the winning party of being a “troll”.

            Far easier than a refutation and almost as good as calling the other party a racist.

          • Jesse

            John, I made a blanket statement, that I still stand by. I didn’t direct it at anyone in particular until he responded like one. If you will re-read my post, I repeatedly used the word “let’s” as in “we, together.” Nowhere did I ask other people to do something that I was unwilling to do.

            The last paragraph was directed specifically at people who take an attitude of superiority when it comes to the low income and homeless people in our community. There is a distinct lack of compassion for the unfortunate in our city, and I’m not the only one who sees it. Very, very few of us are self made, the vast majority of us had help. I’m tired of hearing from people who were born in privilege pretend as though they are somehow superior because they continue to remain privileged.

          • John

            Jesse, I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you are sincere here. Even so, you do not successful enjoin the fellow members of your community by starting out by calling them “assholes”.

            I support the use of charity, volunteerism and churches and non-profits giving freely. But too often whinery here is just a thinly disguised attempt at taking from the successful to throw largesse that others, and that rightly doesn’t play well in a city focuses on self-reliance and achievement.

    • At least the people than come here CAN TAKE CARE of themselves rather than begging. They are not the problem, the begging bums are.And get real, the city wastes 200 million dollars a year to warehouse bums already. There are Billions of poor people in the world, SF cannot take care of them all. Responsibility it’s a lost art. It’s so easy to beg and make enablers feel sorry for you.

    • City

      I wish more people would have compassion as you do. You are abaolutly right.

      • John

        Compassion without action is empty rhetoric. Seems to me he is berating others for what they are not doing instead of helping himself.

        It’s easier to call everyone else “assholes” than it is to get your hands dirty with tangible assistance.

        • landline

          Jesse explained that he volunteers at a Tenderloin non-profit. I say, “If the shoe fits…” Led by your efforts, these comment pages have degenerated, now people are openly calling people with whom they disagree “dykes”. Congratulations, you have laid waste to another website, where commenters could disagree with civility. What is your next target, nihilist?

          • John

            So Jesse calling people “assholes” is not a problem but someone else calling someone a “dyke” is?

            Why the double standard?

          • I love Dykes! It was a “stone butch dyke” that ignited the Stonewall Riots by yelling to the crowd , “WHY DON”T YOU GUYS DO SOMETHING ?”

          • poor.ass.millionaire

            Let me correct you, the use of the word dyke is not universally interpreted as an insult. I know plenty of lesbians who use the term themselves.

          • landline

            You used it as an insult and you know it. John, Kevin Smith, poor.ass.millionaire, paragons of fair discussion. Race-baiter, confessed predator of drug-addicted sex workers, spewer of profanity and insults when frustrated.

          • John

            landline, you turn a blind eye to abuse and racism when it is from someone you ideologically agree with. Examples being Jesse’s use of the word “assholes” and the Hispanic woman poster here a couple of weeks ago who told whites they should “move back to the MidWest”.

            If you consistently attacked all such speech here, you might have some credibility. But you are highly selective and prejudicial in what you choose to whine about.

          • poor.ass.millionaire

            Who here prays on sex workers? C’mon, the few remaining in the mish aren’t even hot. Anymore. They left years ago.

      • Why not have a city consisting entirely of beggars , no nasty people who can be responsible and take care of their own needs. Who needs them? We could all hang out on the streets and beg from nothing but other beggars, that would be swell…

        • John

          There is already a city like that. Detroit.

          When things get beyond a critical tipping point, the productive and law-abiding people flee, leaving behind a rotting urban core.

          For now, SF has escaped that fate, but that is mostly due to the historical accident of having Silicon Valley to bail us out.

          Take SV out of the equation, and SF would be like Oakland, and Oakland would be like Detroit.

          • marcos

            Either we do what you say or we become a lawless, disordered dirty black city like Oakland or Detriot.

  5. sfreality

    I think this city has a lot more charity, acceptance and volunteerism than most any other city in this country. I see random acts of kindness and giving from people on the margins who give selflessly and people at the upper end of financial ladder. Most of us do what we can and I’m always surprised by the generosity of others in this town.

    • John

      I agree. It’s amazing what people will do for and give to others when they are not forced or compelled to. It’s only the entitlement attitude of some that gets in the way. I give more when I feel it is voluntary but will resist strongly if you try and make me or shame me.

      • Jesse

        So are you just writing comments and then responding to yourself? How many screen names do you have on this site?

        But to your point. If you feel that you’re being shamed into charity, then you aren’t charitable. Generous people are generous, they don’t feel insecure because they know these comments don’t pertain to them.

        • John

          I only post here under this name and ML have the underlying email address to confirm that.

          My point was that charity is the correct approach to helping those in need, rather than political solutions. To the extent that is what you are saying, then we agree.

    • City

      True SF is known for helping the low income but too many people take advantage and start expecting support rather than trying to self sustain.

      • John

        There is definitely a “moral hazard” component to being more generous with welfare and handouts than other towns.

  6. When being responsible and taking care of yourself is a selfish act and making bad choices and begging for help makes you a saint, The world has gone stark raving mad…..

  7. from CT

    I am just wondering: if they had a section 8 voucher, why couldn’t they move out to a more affordable apartment? did they lose section 8 because of the eviction? transitions can be difficult for people. are there resources (that residents are actually aware of) for public housing tenants for eviction prevention? its really unfortunate that this family was launched into a years long homeless episode because they didn’t get temporary support & advice about how to not lose the section 8 voucher.

Comments are closed.