A mom at Berkeley Parents Network asked for advice on how to help a homeless woman and her 4-year-old son.
This is a big issue here in the Bay Area. I myself am conflicted as to how best to help since I get asked for money every time I go to the supermarket, drug store and other places, usually by the same people who have lived in those street corners for months if not years. We have a big homeless population here.
What I have been doing is buying the homeless newspaper from vendors if I have cash on me. (Sometimes I only have a credit card.) I also give money to my Catholic church whenever it requests a second collection for a local Catholic homeless shelter (St. Vincent de Paul).
But I am going to run the BPN mom’s letter as well as responses for other ways to help the homeless. Please add your suggestions:
Homeless family – how to help?
I was in San Francisco the other day where I ran into a homeless woman and her 4yr-old son. They were sitting on the ground at a very busy corner, reading a book. Initially I thought they were tourists waiting to get on a cable car. Almost as an afterthought it occurred to me that they had a handwritten sign, so I turned back and confirmed that they were asking for help. It turned out that they have been homeless for about a month. According to her, the family came from another state to CA because of her husband’s job, which for whatever reason didn’t happen. They don’t know anyone in the area, don’t have money to go back and are sleeping in shelters and churches. The husband goes to a labor office every day. She told me that when they do manage to get a bed in a shelter, they can’t go to sleep until 10:30pm and have to wake up at 6:30am. She said the boy has changed dramatically – became more aggressive and defensive. I was absolutely heartbroken, the feeling amplified by the fact that I have my own 4yr-old, who means the world to us, as I am sure her son does to her. All I could do at the moment was to give her some money, as well the phone number of United Way.
I have their first names and she gave me the phone number of organization, where she calls every day to find a bed. I should have asked for more information, but I was just flustered, I guess, and wasn’t thinking clearly at the moment. I can’t stop thinking about them and the little boy who might or might not have a place to sleep tonight. While I understand that I couldn’t just take them into my home, I do feel tremendously guilty for not doing more. But what? We are by no means wealthy, just your average four-people, one-income family. I called and emailed several organizations and received one not very promising response – the family should call such and such number to try to get into a long-term shelter, but there is a very long waiting list. I am not sure what I expected – someone to tell me, oh yes, there is a vacant apartment and a free day care, send them my way. I understand that this family is just one of many struggling families, and the little boy is one of many-many unfortunate kids. But this fact doesn’t make this particular situation any less sad and frustrating. I will try to locate them and would like to learn from this community about meaningful ways to help them if I do manage to find them.
the world is not fair
Here were the responses:
Bless your heart for the care and concern you have taken for this family – I’m not sure I would have been so thorough had I come across them myself. I can’t offer much advice, but I will mention the Bay Area Crisis Nursery in Concord; it’s worth a call. (925) 685-8052 (0-5 years) (925) 685-3695 (6-11 years). They help families during times of crisis, and although it’s a bit of a distance for this family to travel, I believe they offer BART and cab vouchers. From what I remember, it’s mainly a safe, nurturing place for the child to go while the parent finds work (or works out whatever crisis is occuring). Children stay for the day or overnight for several weeks, and while it’s not an ideal situation for this family (the whole family can’t stay together), it makes sense to call them and see what they can tell you. Best of luck.
Hi, I work at Compass Community Services and our Connecting Point program manages the waiting list for all families seeking shelter in SF. Yes, the wait is long and unfortunately with the current economic climate the demand for shelter has almost doubled since this time last year.
There are things, however, that you can do to help – building awareness of family homelessness, knowing what resources are out there (great job calling the United Way!!!) and of course volunteering. If you want to find out more about family homelessness in the Bay Area, please feel free to contact me.
In the early 90’s one of our board members ran into a family on the street almost identical to the one that you described. She was so shocked by their situation that she decided that she had to act. She then helped to create our family transitional housing program, Clara House, which has guided hundreds of families out of homelessness to self-sufficiency!
Since they’re in San Francisco, the family can call the Connecting Point for Families crisis hotline at 1-888-811-SAFE (7233) for immediate referrals to services which will help them find shelter as well as a bunch of social services and case management. Connecting Point is the front door to the family shelter system. The office is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed for lunch noon to 1 p.m.
For shelter the same night, they can call the Hamilton Family Emergency Center at (415) 292-5228 at 11:00 a.m. SHARP for available one-night and 60-day beds.
There is also child care available for homeless families who have at least one child under age 3 via the Children’s Council of San Francisco at 445 Church Street, San Francisco, (415) 343-3300 or childrenscouncil.org. It sounds like this child might be too old for that, but I wanted to put it out there in case anyone else would find it useful.
You may not be able to help this particular family right now, but over time you can help all families who are homeless by becoming proactive. Too often people who can help spend their time talking to friends and family about how they wish they could help.
The reality is that to help, we need to leave our comfort zone and start making phone calls, knocking on doors and talking to people we wouldn’t normally talk to. I suggest that you volunteer for a political cause that will prevent families from becoming homeless in the first place. Or volunteer for a non profit that works directly with homeless families to get them off the street. Write letters to politicians at the state and federal levels urging them to pass bills that will help families who are on the verge of going homeless. Get your family and friends involved. You may not have a direct impact on that family right away, but in the long run you will have an impact on all families.
first i want to say how touched i was by your compassion – it is inspiration and reminds me where my focus should be. your son is learning from your actions and will in turn be a giving person i am sure.
i just learned about a free service to help people for low income housing (and other resources). their number is 211 — or one could go online at edenir.org. but i heard their 211 number has more info.
amen for people like you!
I know it sounds crazy, but you can actually have people come stay with you. My parents helped out homeless people in this way (we had a very big house, 5 kids, and lots of pets) and my brother and his wife do this too. I think it’s crazy! But, I also greatly admire my brother and his family. They have a medium sized house, three kids and regularly bring people home. Yes, they are taking a risk. But, they are both Christians and take the Biblical mandate to care for the poor, widowed and orphaned very seriously, and I think that God is protecting them for doing this. I think that it’s great that you are so concerned and that you even took the time of day to hear their story. May it continue to move you toward action.
I hope that I don’t sound cold-hearted, but please realize that many (!!!) of these cases aren’t real. My husband worked for the city of Alameda and went to a special meeting about homelessness in Berkeley. Apparently, more than 70% of homeless people in Berkeley aren’t homeless. They, in fact, do have a home, but are able to make so much money on the street. So they make their way to certain areas and hold up their signs for donations. And according to the same study, more than 90% of those people don’t even live in Berkeley. They come from surrounding cities.
When we lived in San Francisco, a girlfriend of mine was dating a guy who had divorced his wife. They shared custody of their 3 children – all under the age of 5. He caught his wife numerous times begging for money on the street. She would put her kids in dirty, old clothes and take them barefoot onto the bus. She would take them to the Union Square area and make money using her kids. At first I didn’t believe the story. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t have children of my own at the time, but it seemed incomprehensible that a mother would use her children like that just to support her cocaine habit. But I ran into them on the muni system one afternoon after they had been on the street with their mom for the day. I knew the kids, but didn’t know their mother. The kids were oblivious about what was going on since they were still quite young. All 3 were barefoot and filthy.
The sad thing is that it is probably impossible to know which story is real and which isn’t. It pulls on your heart strings and you naturally want to help.
What say you, MotherTalkers?