Homeless Families Crowd San Diego Shelters
A day in the life of one San Diego family's journey through homelessness
Part two of a two-part series
Christy Riddle and her 9-month-old baby, Charlie, have their daily routine down. They leave from the emergency homeless shelter in downtown San Diego at 6:30 a.m., head up Elm St. to 4th Ave, and catch the 11 bus.
"Where are we?" Riddle asks her baby. "Are you on a bus? Are you on a bus, baby?"
Homelessness isn’t new to Riddle. The 26-year-old has lived a life of poverty, sleeping under bridges and in tents. The 2nd of nine siblings, she never finished high school. Her only work experience was in a thrift store.
"Are you ready to go see daddy, dirty face?" she asks Charlie, who seems to enjoy the bumpy bus ride. His big blue eyes take everything in.
After five minutes, they arrive at their stop. Riddle pushes Charlie in an overloaded stroller two more blocks, and they cross the street at 6th and Upas, near Balboa Park.
"Who’s that guy?" Riddle asks Charlie, as she points to her husband, Charles, who is walking toward them from across the park.
Hi Charlie!" What’s up buddy boy? Are you happy to see daddy?" Charlie smiles as his dad lifts him from the stroller.
Families make up nearly one-third of the nation’s homeless population. The National Center on Family Homelessness estimates 1.6 million children will experience homelessness this year.
Emergency shelters are feeling the strain.
A record number of San Diego homeless families are waiting to get into a long-term shelter. Waiting lists average two to four months. During the wait, many families stay at emergency shelters, like the San Diego Rescue Mission's Emergency Shelter for Women and Children, which has been over-capacity just about every night for the past two years.
"Some we sleep in the hall because we just run out of room in here, but we just squish them together and somehow they all fit," said Molly Downs, director of the Rescue Mission’s Women and Children’s Emergency Shelter.
Downs said in her 13 years of working with the homeless, she’s never seen so many families in need.
"We’ve been keeping families, usually they stay for 30 days, and we’ve had to keep them for three or four months; some of them longer.
The emergency shelter is only licensed to be open from 7 at night to 7 the following morning. During the day, the older children go to school, but little ones endure a tough day with mom on the streets.
Downs said the first question moms ask when they arrive is, "where do we go during the day?"
"And, really I have nowhere to tell them 'cause there is no place," said Downs.
Downs said most families go to a park, just like the Riddles.
Charles Riddle greets his family at this grassy park every morning, which has become “home” to little Charlie.
"We spread out a blanket beneath that tree," said Christy. "And hang out for the day," Charles added. "Yeah we’re here all day," Christy affirmed.
They’ve memorized the timing of the sun and when to move the blanket to keep it in the shade. A squirrel shares their tree and entertains Charlie, who’s just learning to crawl.
"I feel like he’s being hindered, and you know, he’s not allowed to be a baby, like a normal baby where he can just take off crawling across the living room or whatever, and I feel like he’s being constrained a little bit," said Charles.
The Riddles are on a two-month waiting list for long-term housing at St. Vincent de Paul Villages. In the meantime, Charles sleeps under a bridge near University Avenue. Christy and baby Charlie spend their nights at the Rescue Mission's Emergency Shelter.
Rocio Turner, 33, knows what the Riddles are going through. She and her three young children stayed at the Rescue Mission’s emergency shelter after being evicted for late payment from their one-bedroom apartment.
"It was hard because we had to get up early in the morning and go outside," Turner recalled. "I don’t have a car, so it’s just me and my kids and the stroller," she said.
Now the Turners are at YWCA Cortez Hill Family Center, where they can stay for four months.
Right now we’re doing good," said Turner. They’re happy. I see them come in here, everybody’s friendly, they’re really happy."
Turner said her children attend preschool, take naps in their own beds and play with friends. She said they’re not scared anymore, especially her middle child, 4-year-old Ricky.
"He knows he’s safe," Turner said. Everybody’s nice with him, he has the confidence to talk and play with other people."
Turner recently got a job as a caretaker for an Alzheimer’s patient, with help from the Center.
"Usually we wake up, get ready, we don’t have to leave until like 12," said Turner. "I take them to school 'cause they go in the evening, and then I get to go to my part-time job."
Turner said she won’t be able to save enough money in the four months to break her cycle of homelessness, but she’s hopeful about the future.
"So, unfortunately when my time is done here, I’m going to have to go back to the Rescue Mission 'cause I don’t have anywhere else to go," said Turner. "But I have the chance to apply again in here."
Every Friday, the Riddles go to St. Vincent de Paul Villages to check in and keep their name on a waiting list for long-term housing.
If we don’t check in on Fridays, we lose our spot on the list and we’d have to start all over again," explains Charles. "Yeah, all over again," Christy adds.
Once they get in, they can stay for up to two years. Charles says he’ll look for work. Christy’s thinking of going back to school.
They both hope baby Charlie’s journey through homelessness is over before he’s old enough to remember.