Karen and her two daughters at the Mission shelter for families. Photo by Laura Wenus

Some of the city’s least visible but hardest hit homeless people take refuge at an inconspicuous shelter in the Mission District, where roughly 10 of the city’s thousands of homeless families can stay for several months at a time.

“Here, they treat you like family,” said one mother, Karen, who has stayed at the shelter since March. Karen was forced out of her home in the Bayview in October of 2015 after giving birth to her third child. Her landlord said the infant girl would put Karen’s family over the occupancy limit of her apartment.

“I cried a lot. I felt sad, frustrated, like there was nothing to be done,” she remembered of being thrown out. Karen is also a monolingual Spanish speaker, an additional challenge in navigating services or an employment search.

For the next five months, Karen lived primarily out of a car with her son, daughters, and husband. Her mother, who lives in San Francisco, would sometimes allow the family to stay, but limited capacity in her home and the mother’s boyfriend, who did not approve of hosting an additional family, made the arrangement unviable in the long term.

Karen’s situation is not unusual. Families in particular, said Kristin Keller, will go to extreme measures to make sure their children do not sleep on the streets. Keller is the program director of a drop-in center at Compass Family Services, which helps connect families facing homelessness with potential services.

“Parents will stay in bathrooms if they need to,” Keller said. “[One mother] found a 24-hour Carl’s Junior and the security guard was nice enough to rope off a corner for her and let her stay there.”

A recreation room for children at the shelter. Photo by Laura Wenus

A family is generally considered homeless by the city when its members share cramped quarters in an unstable situation — like those sharing an SRO room, living in an illegal space like a garage or facing an imminent eviction.

Of the San Francisco school district’s 56,000 students, some 2,300 students were homeless in May 2014 and that number has only grown. The shelter wait list for families stretches to 250 or so families.

“It really comes down to that there just isn’t…enough housing opportunities here for shelter,” Keller said. “It’s not visible. If just the number of families who are on the shelter waitlist and people were seeing that every day, believe me, things would change.”

Like their single, childless counterparts, parents with children who find themselves without shelter in the city often have strong ties to the city that keep them here. The Coalition on Homelessness estimates that some 71 percent of those living on the streets used to live in San Francisco. Compass Family Services estimates that roughly 75 percent of families on the city’s shelter waitlist lived, worked, or have children in the school system of San Francisco. In many cases, both parents are employed even as the family becomes homeless. Karen’s husband, for example, works at Foreign Cinema. Karen stays at the shelter watching the children.

I think there’s’ been an unfortunate myth that families are just flocking here by the droves [for services]. It’s basically completely untrue,” Keller said.

Karen was connected to the family shelter though a church acquaintance. She spent nine months on the waitlist before being selected for a room at the center.

The Mission family shelter is a slightly sprawling but otherwise handsome building tucked away on a residential street. Before it was taken over by Catholic Charities, which runs the family shelter, it served as an elder home, and at one point was a youth center. 21 rooms at the shelter house from two to more than six people at a time. Some have rooms with private bathrooms, while others share restrooms in a hallway. It stands in stark contrast to the temporary shelters that often are the only available option for parents in dire straits.

“Emergency shelters are mats on the floor of a church where you have to get up every day at 7 a.m. and leave try to get your kids to school,” Keller said.

One of the shared bathrooms inside the shelter. Photo by Laura Wenus
The laundry room at the family shelter. Photo by Laura Wenus

At the shelter, Children can participate in arts and gardening programs as well as occasionally indulge in computer time or video games. Parents receive help from caseworkers to figure out their next steps in terms of employment and of course, housing – their stays are supposed to be limited to three months, with an extension to six if necessary.

“One of the best things is that they teach you how to save money and to spend wisely,” Karen said. It helps that the shelter is completely free.

Though Karen has been looking around at apartments in San Francisco, housing costs in San Francisco have taken their toll both in displacement and the inability of service providers to provide replacement housing.

“A year ago I was able to house a lot of families in or near San Francisco or Oakland,” said Marianna Estrada, a manager and caseworker at the shelter. “Now it’s Sacramento, Stockton, Fresno.”

For Karen, the best option might be even farther away: the family is considering moving to Virginia. With family there that could provide a temporary supportive network while the family gets back on its feet, their best shot might be the city’s Homeward Bound program, a city program that pays for transportation to send the homeless to stay with relatives or other who can support them.

Asked for her thoughts on moving across the country, Karen acknowledged its pragmatism.

“I’ve looked at the Craigslist page and the prices are very different. Here the prices are $2,000 for a very small place. There, you can get a three bedroom for $1,000,” she said.

Estrada noted that the Homeward Bound program is very fast-acting — which could be important in Karen’s situation. With nearly five months under her belt at the shelter, which is currently at full capacity, her time is once more running out.

This story was published as part of a citywide initiative of some 70 news organizations to cover homelessness. You can see the full range of coverage here.

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