Friday, December 4, 2009
The North County shelter network opened its doors this week for families who would otherwise be sleeping in their cars.
SAN DIEGO The face of homelessness has changed over the past decades. A population that was once mainly single adult males started to include more women, and now includes many families with children.
Social service agencies do their best to keep families out of homeless shelters, either by helping them to stay in their own homes or giving them motel vouchers. The North County shelter network opened its doors this week for families who would otherwise be sleeping in their cars.
There’s a line outside the dark warehouse on Orange Avenue in Vista, mostly women, some of them single and others clutching the hands of small children who jump up and down when the lady with the clipboard reaches them.
“OK, who’s next?” she asks. “What’s your name?”
Light spills out of the doorway, and it’s warm and bright inside.
The families are checked in and immediately settle down to seats at long tables, where a comforting smell of hot stew wafts over them.
Russell Blackwood who runs the Operation Hope Shelter rounds up the volunteers.
“We need a couple of people to serve,” he says. “Alright everybody, let’s have your attention up here. Welcome to Operation Hope! We’ve still got a screening process and some paperwork to go through tonight, but first, let’s have a meal and let’s say a prayer and give thanks.”
As soon as everyone has had a good hot meal, Blackwood says, the next order of business is a drug test. Nobody gets to stay unless they are clean.
Within minutes the kids are fully engaged with each other in a play area set up between the partitioned sleeping areas. Blackwood says he built it all from scratch. The building was an empty warehouse.
“All their eyes light up when they get here,” he says. “They’re scared, they’re hungry, they’re cold. Their eyes light up when they see the setup here.”
Kimberly Wain sits on one of the sofas with her small son Nicholas, watching her two daughters, Sheri Jo and Kara, play on the jungle gym.
Kara comes over to talk. She tells me she’s three and a half and she’s glad to be here, and that she’s already in preschool. Her brother Nicholas curls into his mother’s shoulder and coughs. He’s caught a nasty cold. He says he goes to kindergarten.
Kimberly says she lost her job about two months ago, after 10 years as a dispatcher. Soon after, when they couldn’t make the rent, she and her family were evicted from their apartment. The first few weeks they spent in the family car.
“I used to stack up big bags of clothes on the floorboards of the car so it would be even with the back seat so me and the three kinds could sleep on the back seat,” she says. "And their dad could sleep on the front seat.”
Kimberly says her husband has finally landed a job and they hope to save enough money staying at the shelter to be able to get into another apartment.
The number of families either evicted or on the verge of being evicted has jumped this year, according to Laurin Pause, who runs the Community Resource Center in Encinitas.
“If I look at our numbers here, the increase in demand for services from our clients has gone up well over 50 percent," she says. "It’s probably more, but we’re limited by the staff we have, so we can’t serve any more people coming to us. I’m going to expect more people looking for shelter this year than we have beds available.”
Pause says the last time she saw this much demand for services from families was back in the late 1980s when General Dynamics closed its doors and the defense industry shrank dramatically in San Diego. That meant the loss of thousands of jobs.
Pause says the one bright spot this time around is the promise of federal stimulus dollars. She says the larger cities in the San Diego region will get more than $13 million for homeless prevention, directly from Washington. Smaller North County cities like hers are waiting for $1.6 million coming through the state of California to help prevent homelessness over the next two years. She says the money is currently held up in Sacramento.
“For me that’s unfortunate,” she says. “I have a waiting list of 35 families who are qualified to receive financial assistance.”
Since jobs are so scarce, Pause says a few months of rental assistance will be a lifeline for many families.
Back at the shelter in Vista, Kimberly Wain says she hopes she and her family won’t have to stay in the shelter more than a few weeks. Her goals are simple.
“A job,” she says. “And stay stable enough and keep a job, till this doesn’t happen again.”
The family shelter in Vista is not full yet, although 35 of the 49 bunk beds are already taken in its first week. It is one of six shelters in North County, run by the Alliance for Regional Solutions. They have fewer than 200 beds available, but last year they helped more than 600 people. More than three-quarters of the people they helped were able, with the support of case management, to make changes in their lives and find a place to live.