By Jeeni Criscenzo del Rio
I had just returned from a 3-hour forum on options for housing homeless people. The Amikas phone was ringing and I rushed to answer it while flinging the handouts and brochures from the event onto my desk. The hopeful but timid voice on the other end of the call sounded all too familiar. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t make out her name, I already knew her story and why she was calling Amikas.
Although our agency closed the last of our residential programs last month, there are still listings for us throughout the county and I’m still getting calls like this one. This woman found our card tacked on the bulletin board at the LGBT Community Center and thought we would be the answer to her prayers. She is seven months pregnant and has two kids, 6 and 7 years old. She’s been homeless for six months.
She explained that she and her kids had been sleeping in abandoned cars when they can find one, but mostly camping in Balboa Park or wherever she can avoid getting picked up by the police. You would think, after listening to nine speakers describe the different kinds of housing available to homeless families (transitional; recovery; permanent supportive; subsidized; etc. etc.) and all of the categorizations of homeless people: transitory; episodic; chronic; veterans; etc. etc.) and all of the campaigns and goals and blah blah blah blah… you would think I could have suggested something for this woman.
I flipped through my notes scribbled alongside the PowerPoint handouts, business cards and tri-fold brochures I’d just dumped onto my desk as I listened to this woman’s explanation of her situation. I let out a long sigh that I hoped would convey my genuine feelings of sadness for what I was about to say.
“I can give you some names and numbers, but I know that they all have very long waiting lists. But I urge you to go ahead and put your name on all of their lists anyway. Go to St. Vincent’s and make an appointment to fill out a VI-SPDAT (a survey that is supposed to determine a homeless person’s level of vulnerability but doesn’t account for families or pregnancy).”
I didn’t tell her that I asked the panelist who said the waiting list for Section 8 housing is 10 years, if a person’s income changed during that 10 years would they need to reapply each time because in 10 years a poor person could be employed and unemployed a bazillion times. The answer was no, only their income at the time they come to the top of the list matters. I suspect that some people might not be around by then.
I cautioned her about Single Room Occupancy hotels (SROs) – that most of them are too dangerous for children, they are mostly in terrible disrepair and have no bars on the windows that you must open because there is no air conditioning. But some of them don’t require a deposit and sometimes you can rent week to week. The decent ones cost upwards of $750 per month – she said that was more than her benefits.
The housing that was offered at the forum was for very specific populations – Sunburst Youth has one unit for a disabled youth between 18 and 24; St Paul’s PACE has housing for seniors who meet a slew of qualifications, including a downtown address; TACHS has 1 unit available for an individual with severe chronic mental illness, PATH and Veteran Community Services can offer case management and temporary financial aid for veterans – but they don’t actually have the housing. St. Vincent de Paul has a 2 to 3 week wait for single women and a 3 to 5 month wait for families! Alpha Project has subsidies and case management, but no actual housing at this moment.
So what’s a mom like my caller to do? All of this talk about Housing First and a coordinated intake system isn’t doing her a bit of good. No doubt the terror that she faces every night as a homeless mother has left a lifelong mark on her psyche as PTSD. She’d have to be super human not to be traumatized. And now she is coming to term with another baby. I’ve been 7 months pregnant – twice –and I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to be living on the streets in that condition. On the one hand, to survive, she has to be fully focused on the present. On the other, she has a due date looming where she has to be wondering, how am I going to care for a newborn in this situation?
Amikas couldn’t get a dime of funding from any public grants. We went begging to our City Council and County Supervisors for a bit of their “slush” funds to sustain us a little bit longer. Nada. We proposed to other veteran providers to partner with us to serve the women. No go. Still, a year ago, I would not have told this woman I couldn’t help her – I would have met with her and maybe had a room for her at Amikas House or one of our shared units. But now, there is nothing.
Enough with all of this grandstanding about how we’re going to end homelessness for veterans and the chronically homeless by… oh I think they moved the date to 2017. Let’s be honest, we have no place to put these folks. There’s a huge roadblock after the intake and housing navigation process with a sign that says “NO HOUSING FOR YOU!”
And now they are telling families that they are next on the program – We’ll take care of then in 2020 after we get all of the guys who already know how to survive on the streets into our non-existent housing. Right! Go tell that to the mom in Balboa Park about to give birth. I’m sure she’ll be so happy to hear it.