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Hidden Voices, a report to be released this month by the Coalition on Homelessness, establishes homeless families and immigrants as an integral part of the over-all homelessness crisis in America, and argues for the inclusion of families and immigrants in any strategy to reduce or end homelessness.

Today, 14.4 million American families—one out of every seven families—have critical housing needs. Despite all of the talk of family values in America, we have utterly failed as a society to value our families. We have failed to create the necessary affordable housing, decent and accessible jobs, income safety net, childcare, and health care that will allow all families in this country to thrive. Despite the severe needs of America’s low-income families and children, the last twenty years have witnessed massive cutbacks in programs that benefit them. The 1996 Welfare Reform act has also adversely affected America’s families by pushing heads of households into low-paying jobs while eliminating social safety nets.

The shifts in the economy over the past two decades—including deindustrialization, globalization, the growth in low-wage, temporary service jobs, and the decline in union density—have led to rising gaps between rich and poor and declining real wages for workers. Taken together, the consequence is homelessness.

Homelessness disrupts family life, damages emotional and physical health of family members, and inhibits children’s education and development. Homelessness often causes family separation due to increased contact with Child Protective Services. Frequently homeless families are headed by single-mothers who are often victims of domestic violence. Instead of addressing the systematic nature of family homelessness, public policy and perception has been driven by stereotypes of poor families as parasitic and criminal.

Similar to families who have U.S. citizenship or legal residency status, Latino immigrants have distinct challenges that intensify and complicate their lives should they become homeless. In San Francisco, as in much of the rest of the nation, the lowest-paid, most hazardous work for is reserved for immigrants. Such work is usually casual, with no formal job protections and little recourse should an employer decide not to pay earned wages. Logically this increases the likelihood of immigrants becoming homeless.

Hidden Voices challenges stereotypes of homeless immigrants. Homeless people in general are often accused of moving to areas where there are generous public benefits to be had. Our study provides evidence to the contrary. Similarly, immigrants are typically viewed as having little roots in the areas in which they settle. Those who we spoke with indicated that they have lived in the United States for a substantial period of time.

Immigrants contribute to the economy, often working in the lowest paid and most unstable jobs. The instability and poor quality of these jobs, however, often leads to homelessness or makes it near impossible to exit homelessness. Participants in this study indicate severe barriers to exiting homelessness, including legal status, racism, and language.

Most of the reasons why immigrants arrived in the U.S. are economic. The first most common reason for migration was to better themselves and to create a better life and future for themselves and their families. Many immigrants reported coming to the United States to find economic opportunities that were absent at home. American dream. The second most common reason for immigration to the United States was poverty and economic crisis in the immigrants’ home countries.

A third key set of reasons that respondents expressed for coming to the United States was to help their family—both their family in the United States and their family in their country of origin Immigrants face many of the same challenges that any low-income person or family would to get by in San Francisco.

The immigrant-specific barriers are: lack of legal documents which make it difficult to rent or work, and discrimination. It should be noted as well that immigrants are prohibited from the majority of government benefits and that regulations passed by Congress during the Clinton years make gaining subsidized housing nearly impossible.


The findings in this report are based upon written surveys, taped interviews and focus groups conducted with 133 homeless parents in March and April of 2004. Of those we spoke with, 42% lived in shelters, 35% doubled-up, 11% lived in transitional housing, 6% were in residential treatment, 3% lived in residential hotels, 2% lived on the street and 1% lived in cars.

In addition, respondents had the following characteristics:


  • 87% female
  • 13% male


  • 68% African-American/Black
  • 17% Latino
  • 8% Asian/Pacific Islander
  • 6% White
  • 1% Native


  • 4% under 18 years old
  • 30% aged 19-25
  • 41% aged 26-35
  • 25% 36 years old or higher

Family Size

  • 79% are single parents
  • The average number of children in each family is 2.1


Basic Demographic Findings

  • Many homeless families are “chronically homeless” The average length of homelessness for parents interviewed was 2.4 years. 65% of parents reported being homeless for one year or longer.
  • The average homeless parent interviewed has lived in San Francisco for 18.6 years.
  • 70% of homeless parents have lived in San Francisco for 5 years or longer.
  • 88% of parents lived in San Francisco before becoming homeless. 4% became homeless upon moving to the city.
  • African-Americans Are Homeless Longer Than Other Races
    • Average Time Homeless:
    • African American/Black: 2.8 years
    • Latino: 1.3 years
    • Asian: 1.6 years
    • White: 1.6 years
  • Homeless Parents Report Working and Overwhelmingly Prefer Work to Cash Assistance
  • 23% of parents interviewed reported currently working. Most parents have received cash assistance for one year or less.
  • Over half have previously exited cash assistance

  • 95% of respondents receiving cash assistance said they would rather join the workforce than stay on welfare.
  • Homeless Families Face Particular Challenges

    • Homeless families identify housing as their most pressing need.
    • Homeless families identify the prime barriers to housing as long waiting list for subsidized housing, lack of family-sized housing, discrimination and high rents.
    • Homeless family’s income – whether working or on cash assistance—is inadequate to pay rent.
    • Barriers in trying to obtain work are: not being hired, lack of childcare, disabilities, and conditions related to homelessness.


    Throughout this report we illustrate that families face particular barriers as families. However, the most important solution to their problems is to include them in gains established by any political, policy or social policy effort designed to reduce or end homelessness! Problems which much be addressed to make sure that homeless families exit homelessness include family separation, emotional and psychological stress particular to preserving a family, increased costs of living for families and children’s education, safety and recreation. While distinct, the principal barriers to families attempting to exit homelessness are similar to those facing single adults—the lack of access to affordable housing and living wages!


    Most Homeless Latino Immigrants have lived in the United States for a substantial period of time. The average time that the homeless Latino immigrants interviewed have lived in the United States is nine years, and half have lived in the United States for five years or more. The average time homeless Latino immigrants have lived in San Francisco is 4.8 years, and 60% have lived in San Francisco for one year or more. Thus, the overwhelming majority of these homeless immigrants have been in this country contributing to its economy for a significant period of time.

    Homeless Latino immigrants contribute to the economy, often working in the lowest paid and most unstable jobs.

    The occupations which immigrants reported are (in order of frequency): general labor/day labor; construction assistance/carpentry; restaurant work; cleaning; painting, gardening, moving, and janitorial jobs. The instability and poor quality of these jobs, however, often leads to homelessness or makes it near impossible to exit homelessness.

    69% of the homeless Latino immigrants said that they are either currently unable to find work or are unable to find stable work. The inability to find work is reflected in respondents’ answers to the question of why they are homeless. The most reasons given for their homelessness were: the lack of work, inability to afford rent, low paying jobs, the lack of job stability, and the high cost of housing.

    Many Homeless Latino Immigrants are Chronically Homeless.

    The average time homeless Latino immigrants have been homeless is 1.5 years. (This figure does not include people living in SROs, who reported living in SROs for twice as long.) Nearly half have been homeless for one year or longer, and 27% have been homeless for two years or more.

    Homeless Latino immigrants face severe barriers to exiting homelessness, including legal status, racism, and language.

    • Legal Status: 80% of homeless Latino immigrants are without legal immigration documents. This lack of documentation was repeatedly stated as one of the largest problems that homeless immigrants feel they face.
    • Racism: 80% of homeless Latino immigrants interviewed felt that racism is a cause of homelessness. Racism and discrimination are among the major problems that homeless immigrants feel they face.
    • Language: Spanish was the first language of all of the immigrants interviewed, except for one who spoke Portuguese. Language barriers are another major problem that homeless immigrants feel they face.

    Author: Street Sheet Editor

    The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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