“It’s stressful… These days, pretty stressful.” Floria Cartago (name changed) reflects on her family’s single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel room: “It’s stressful for the kids, too. The boys don’t have enough space to move around; they can’t jump because it makes noise for the neighbors downstairs.”
Judith Martínez reports similar problems: “The apartment is so small, and the kids want to get around, get out,” but the Martínezes have no yard at their SRO hotel.
In a 2001 resolution co-sponsored by then-Supervisor Gavin Newsom, families living in subadequate housing are included in the City of San Francisco’s official definition of homelessness. Recent research suggests that there are at least 2,040 such families—in shelters, on the streets, doubled up, or in SROs—in San Francisco. The Housing First for Families Campaign (HFF), composed of families such as the Martínezes and Cartagos, has made it its mission to end family homelessness in San Francisco by seeing housing created for every one of those families.
Quality of Life
In the middle of January’s cold snap, the nigh-always-open door of the Coalition on Homelessness’ office is kept just barely ajar by a premature deadbolt. As though this were not enough to retain the office’s heat, organizer Miguel Carrera leads the HFF families in an icebreaker at the beginning of their annual self-evaluation: “I want each of you to tell me one beautiful thing that happened to you over this past year.”
Many families report new babies, family reunions, opportunities to work with new friends and allies in the Campaign. But others come up short: Deaths in the family, continuing problems with underhousing or total homelessness. It can be hard to think of even one beautiful thing. The problems compound:
The only table in Judith’s family’s SRO room is in the kitchen. She would have her children do their homework there, except that she’s usually cooking while they’re doing their homework, which means that they have no choice but to spread their books and papers out on the floor. It’s depressing, she says, that her kids don’t even have a table to work on.
Floria takes her kids regularly to the parks and other respites around town: For her, these are places of refuge where she can forget about the troubles of home.
How Did We Get Here?
Families are among the fastest growing segments of the homeless population in America today. The lack of affordable housing which causes homelessness is a double hardship for families, where often one income needs to stretch to provide for two, three, or more individuals. The lower a family’s income, the higher their chances of experiencing homelessness—the lack of housing being nothing but the most extreme form of poverty.
According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, this extreme poverty manifests itself most harshly in families, leading to the kinds of stress identified by Floria and Judith, but also to higher rates of asthma, ear infections, stomach problems, and speech problems among children in homeless families. Homeless kids experience more mental health problems, developmental delays, and emotional disturbance than do children in housed families.
Unfortunately, governmental response on all levels has been misguided, focusing on individual pathologies rather than on homelessness as the inevitable result of poverty. Most recently, both the Federal Bush administration and the local Newsom administration have focused on an amorphous population which the Department of Housing and Urban Development has termed “chronically homeless.” While many specifics were up in the air, HUD made it very clear, through the end of 2006, that this population was to include only unaccompanied individuals, and not families. By HUD mandate, and by the design of now-Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Care Not Cash legislation, the vast majority of subsidized housing and other aid was to bypass the 40% of the homeless population composed of families.
“We started as a bunch of SRO families and families that were doubled up and in shelters and wanting to do something about it and wanting to get our voices heard.” Najuawanda Daniels is a peer organizer with the Housing First for Families Campaign and with the Families and Immigrants Workgroup that houses it at the Coalition. The Campaign got its start on the last day of February in 2005 when these first families began a two-month survey of families in shelters, SROs, and in doubled-up living situations. The culmination of this effort was the publication of the Housing First for Families report.
Following this was a flurry of organizing activity, culminating in an August meeting with Mayor Newsom, and a verbal commitment from the Mayor that he would take action on family homelessness.
Two Beautiful Things
From the research that led to the Housing First for Families report, the core families from the campaign and other staff and volunteers from the Coalition on Homelessness prepared fifteen proposals for legislative and budget changes that might help families to exit homelessness. In Spring of 2005, three of these proposals were selected by homeless families as priorities for the initial phase of the campaign: the creation of shallow rent subsidies to help families find housing within their price range, the expansion of the City’s eviction-prevention funds to help families to stay housed, and the creation of enough family-directed housing to help all of the homeless families in San Francisco to exit homelessness.
Just over one year later, through the City’s Budget Process, and with the support of the Board of Supervisors, the families in the campaign were successful in seeing the first two of these recommendations implemented through a $700,000 expansion of eviction-prevention funds and the creation of $1.3 million in rental subsidies.
Ending Family Homelessness
But it would take six more months before the families were able to meet again with Mayor Newsom to discuss their most radical proposal: The creation of 1,507 units of family housing. “I thought he seemed sincere,” was Floria’s analysis of the meeting. Judith agreed: “It went very well. He listened to us—to each of our cases.”
But so far, the Mayor has only committed to 200 housing units at a rate affordable to San Francisco’s more than 2,000 homeless families.
In the mean time, the families and their allies are conducting research in Chinatown, the Mission, SoMa, and the Tenderloin at the Mayor’s behest to ascertain income levels of families in need.
But the outreach is as much boon as burden. Naj Daniels talks about a father she’s been working with since the campaign began: He’s in his late forties, taking care of three kids on his own, and living in an SRO. He has custody as his wife has been in and out of drug rehabilitation programs. “He’s trying to teach his son responsibility and how to work for what he wants—giving him an allowance for school clothes and stuff like that.” It’s more frustrating though, with one of his daughters: “He says, ‘I teach her one thing, and then every time she comes back [from visiting her mother], she doing something else. I’m like, “You’re just like your mama.”‘”
But hearing about hard times is not new to Naj, as a peer organizer: “I guess he just needs to talk—he probably don’t get to talk to that many people. One time, before I knew it, we’d been talking for four hours. Getting to talk to someone who’s working so hard is really inspiring to me, as an outreach worker.”
Judith and Floria are equally committed to the future work that needs to be done to end family homelessness. Says Judith, “We need more families united from more communities. We’re going to need to hold more press conferences, continue meeting with the Mayor, create space for families [to work] together, learn better public speaking skills, and create greater unity with other organizations—too often, so far, we’ve been going it alone.” Floria: “Even if my family gets one of these subsidies, I will continue supporting and working with the campaign, because others need this [assistance] as much as I do. This is the reason that we need to support one another.”
If you are interested in joining the work of the Housing First for Families Campaign, please come to one of our weekly meetings at 468 Turk Street on Thursdays at noon.