Late last month, one Wednesday night, two large families spent the greater part of the night on the corner of Third Street, calling out for help. They had 11 children between the two families, of all ages from babes to teens. They were turned away from a local church that allows families to sleep on their floor. One of the children, a freshman in high school, was particularly upset.
She had been at volleyball practice, and while her mother got to the church early enough to get in, they wouldn’t allow them to sign up until the entire family was present. By the time she got there, the place was all filled up. The teenager got on that phone and called everyone she could think of – TV stations, city officials, even the police. Only one entity answered her call – the police. They were permitted to sleep on the floor of the Bayview police station, but just for the one night. The next night more families were turned away.
These two families are not alone. A report recently put out by the California Homeless Youth Project reports that nearly 270,000 students experienced homelessness in California. Last year, the number of homeless students in the United States surpassed the 1.1 million mark, and according to the National Center for Homeless Education, that number has jumped more then 70 percent since the early days of the recession.
Here in San Francisco, the wait for stable shelter is more then 6 months long, and we have over 2,000 children in our schools trying to survive without a stable place to call home. These numbers only reflect school age children – most homeless families have young children who are not of age to be enrolled in public schools yet.
Historically, the city has focused its housing resources on the more politically visable single adults. Only 7 percent of the city’s homeless housing units go to families with children, even though they make up about 40 percent of the population. In recent years, this has started to shift. This summer, along with other important homeless family interventions, the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor approved funding to create 70 housing subsidies to rapidly re-house homeless families in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, a day in the life of a homeless child is beyond brutal – and their parents have it rough to boot. The children have no place to study, they are in crowded conditions, hunger is rampant, they have no privacy, they cannot get enough sleep and they are always tired. Homeless parents have to lug their belongings from place to place, they walk and walk, they often have nowhere to bring their children before and after school, showers are rare and just about everything one might take for granted is a struggle. As a parent myself, it is unimaginable hardship.
The other day a parent was in to see me, having worked all her life in SF and, due to domestic violence, found herself without a place to live. She has a disabled son, and she told me the very worst part of being in her situation, was not the hard mats on the floor, or the getting her kids out the door at 6 a.m. from the shelter with nowhere to go. Even parenting her non-verbal son in a congregate setting where people may not be all that understanding wasn’t it.
All that was bad, sure, but the worst for her was not being able to give her child drinking water when he was thirsty. Drinking water. That’s it. Here in a city of unfettered opulence and one of our beloved mothers cannot even give her child a sip of hetch-hetchy before he goes to sleep for the night.
The city has this opportunity to act swiftly and ease our children’s suffering. The Mayor should build on the successes he has initiated and make it a priority to end homelessness among families in San Francisco during his tenure.
Jennifer Friedenbach is executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.
Note: This column has been updated from the original print version.