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Homeless Families In San Diego Crowd Emergency Shelters

The growing number of poor families in San Diego County is taking a toll on emergency shelters.

Aired 2/7/13 on KPBS News.

The growing number of poor families in San Diego County is taking a toll on emergency shelters.

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Nearly one in five children (19.2 percent) in San Diego County lived below the federal poverty level in 2011.

"I’ve been working with families for 12 years, and I’ve never seen the amount of kids and families that we had last year," said Molly Downs, emergency services director for the San Diego Rescue Mission.

The overnight emergency shelter has a capacity for 60 women and children. It's open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and provides families with dinner, breakfast, a bed and a hot shower.

"We’re supposed to have 60 women and children. We had 96 last night ...44 kids and around 25 families."

Herb Johnson, Rescue Mission CEO said a "special services envelope" allows them to add 20 more beds if needed. He said they do all they can to avoid turning families away from their front door, located downtown on Elm St.

"You know, the doorbell rings at 9:30 p.m. and there’s a mother standing out there with five kids and no place to go," said Johnson.

Families can stay at the emergency shelter for 30 days, though sometimes that's stretched to three or four months if a family is on a waiting list for the long-term shelter.

"We know that if we put them out of here, and they don't have a bed, there isn't another bed likely for them," explained Johnson.

Downs described a typical night in the shelter as "a bit chaotic" because of so many babies and children sleeping in the same room, but she said the shelter provides the children some stability and a routine.

"We have a kid corner where they can watch movies and do their homework, and we let them burn some energy outside. We have a basketball hoop and bikes and balls," she said.

The children nicknamed their outside play area, "the playground in the sky" because it sits atop the Rescue Mission's employee parking garage and offers views of the city and planes passing by.

But Downs said the playground is only a temporary escape from a very hard life -- especially school-age children who struggle in class because they don't sleep well at night and it's hard for them to pay attention and to learn. "We try to get lights out at 9 p.m., but they wake up at 5 a.m. and eat breakfast around 6 a.m."

Most of the children attend Monarch School, dedicated for homeless children, or Washington Elementary -- both schools are within walking distance to the shelter.

"We've had schools call us and say that some of our kids are so tired they're falling asleep in class, and we'll try to get those kids to sleep and make sure their homework is done, but it's hard to get them up at five and out of the door," said Downs.

Johnson said his workday typically ends at 6:30 p.m., just before the shelter opens. He said he's often overwhelmed with guilt on his drive home, especially during bad weather.

"It’s like a freight train of women and baby carriages and kids coming up 2nd Ave. I look at those kids, they’re soaking wet, it’s raining. At least I know they’re going to be safe here," he said.

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