Willie Iribarren, right, speaks with an attendee at an open house for family homelessness held by Compass Family Services. (Ryan McNulty/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Navigating homelessness with children

San Francisco resident Willie Iribarren grew up experiencing homelessness. As a single mother, she found herself staying in shelters once again.

“It’s harder,” Iribarren, 26, said. “You put up with more because
you need a place for your baby to sleep.”

Iribarren has learned to navigate the system after staying in various shelters with her two young daughters before landing at Clara House, an 18-month transitional housing program in San Francisco under the umbrella of Compass Family Services. Her mom found help through Compass when Iribarren was young and led her adult daughter to the same resource.

When she first sought help, Iribarren was placed in housing with her young daughter and then-partner, where the family’s portion of the rent was $300 and the rest was subsidized. Then, the rent went up and the subsidy expired, skyrocketing their portion to $1,300.

“It wasn’t doable at all,” Iribarren said. She then moved back to Hamilton Family Emergency Center shelter, where families can stay for 60 days in the dorm-style rooms, before moving to Antioch. The commute was long and expensive.

Families experiencing homelessness face unique challenges. Ninety percent are in shelters, although they must wait six months to a year to find those temporary beds and often stressful conditions.

“That’s just to solve their sleeping problem, not their living problem,” Colm Hegarty said. He’s the director of donor relations at Compass Family Services, a 101-year-old organization that held an open house Wednesday.

It’s estimated there are more than 3,000 children experiencing homelessness in San Francisco, according to Compass. Homelessness can cause students to miss school days, lack the food their brains need for schoolwork and development, and experience exhaustion from stress and sleep loss.

More than 7,500 people were homeless on the streets and in shelters of San Francisco last January, but that number is considered an undercount by most local homeless advocacy groups. Homeless people in families numbered 630 in 2015, down from 679 two years before. More than 40 percent have experienced domestic violence.

Most homeless families are a single mom with one or two kids, Hegarty said. Those families face the highest risk of finding themselves homeless, especially those with children under age six, according to San Francisco’s homeless count last year.

Families from San Francisco who are placed in housing by Compass have moved as far away as Fresno and around the Bay Area.

But finding any shelter is considered a stroke of luck when waiting for subsidized housing can take up to 20 years and Compass has 232 families on its waitlist.

Before they’re placed in housing, families must navigate systems and rules at shelters, where it’s easy to get kicked out.

San Francisco native Regina Bates moved into a one-bedroom with subsidized rent in Vallejo last August.

She worked as a corporate receptionist for 25 years until she injured her foot. When she returned from disability, she’d been fired. Job loss plummeted her into homelessness, like 25 percent of San Francisco’s homeless population has reported. Every chance she could, Bates dropped her kids off at school and then used San Francisco public libraries as her office. “I researched my way out of homelessness,” she said. She got hired as a receptionist at Raphael House, San Francisco’s only private shelter for families, and took a second job at the Coalition on Homelessness last November.

“‘If I don’t do double-duty, then I’m going to be homeless again.’ You get post-traumatic stress when you’re homeless because it’s ‘do-or-die,’” Bates said.

When Bates’ family was homeless, she said, “Your kids didn’t ask to be homeless. Your kids, they’re stressed out too. They need therapy. They need safety, stability.”

Bates felt the constant gaze of Child Protective Services, checking out the kids and the parenting all the time. She was always worried that they wouldn’t be allowed to stay together.

She wonders why so many people are homeless today, seemingly more than ever, she said.

“We are the third largest economic city in all of the nation. There’s no reason why there’s a lot of homeless people out there. This day and age, 2016, y’all can put drones in the air, self-driving cars. What the hell are you doing?”

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