Until 2002, Adrian Allen was working a good paying job in construction.
“I went to school for construction,” she says. “Graduated at the top of my class. I was the only female on an all-men’s crew.”
But then she developed thoracic outlet syndrome, a rare condition that creates terrible pain in the neck and shoulder, and she was left unable to work. After cycling through four or five less physically-demanding positions, she was eventually forced to go on disability.
“Times got hard to where I couldn’t afford the utilities anymore,” Allen says. “It had gotten so bad that I couldn’t live like that any longer." Allen had lived without power for several months and hot water for almost two years.
Allen, a native San Franciscan, is 43 years old. She mostly raised her four children in Modesto. These days, three of them are able to support themselves, but the other is only 11.
“If it was me by myself, I could do this by myself,” she explains. “But I have somebody that I’m responsible for.”
Allen and her son, who are staying with a friend for now, are one of over 250 families on the waiting list for shelter at Compass Connecting Point. It’s a program of Compass Family Services that places families in temporary housing in San Francisco.
But it’s getting more difficult. When you think of homelessness in San Francisco, your first mental image might be of what’s visible: People huddled in blankets in the Tenderloin, panhandling in the Upper Haight, or making camp in Golden Gate Park. But those individuals don’t paint the whole picture. Nationally, at least 35% of the homeless population is made up of families with children who can’t very safely spend the night outdoors. It’s not much different here. In fact, the number of families who’ve put their names on San Francisco’s shelter waiting list is higher than ever – breaking almost every record now at 264 families. Five years ago, the waiting list was only a quarter as long.
It’s no surprise, then, that Compass Connecting Point’s waiting room is often filled with families not only seeking shelter, but also access to other resources like computers, food, clothing, and counseling.
Elizabeth Ancker, Assistant Program Director at Compass Connecting Point, says the number of families on the list has been shooting up – especially in the past few months. “We went up 22 families in a week and we’re not sure exactly why that happened,” she says. When Ancker started working at Connecting Point in 2006, there were only 76 families on the waiting list.
Furthermore, about 60% of the families on the list right now have never been homeless before. As Jennifer Friedenbach, Executive Director of the Coalition on Homelessness, explains, “The huge piece is the recession of course. For very low income families who are spending most of their income on rent, when they lose hours, when they lose jobs, it’s very destabilizing, because they have very little cushion, they have nothing to fall back on, they have no accumulated wealth, and that ends up leading to homelessness.”
But San Francisco’s shortage of affordable housing is also contributing to the crisis. Friedenbach says that very little housing has been developed over the last 10 years for homeless families, which means these families end up in a cycle of re-entering the shelter system. "And then we have all these new families becoming homeless,” she adds.
The focus on eradicating homelessness in San Francisco has historically been on single adults, not families. “The reason for that is very political,” Friedenbach says. “When you have the most visible population out on the streets, the politicians want to really focus on them. They have to reduce them. Homeless families are very invisible. That doesn’t create a lot of political will to address the problem.”
Not being able to rely on social services forces many families to seek their own solutions. Compass Connecting Point’s Elizabeth Ancker sees families that are doubled up in the "projects," with up to 10 people staying in a single bedroom apartment.
Those situations can be unsustainable. But even when desperate families seek short-term emergency shelter, they’re being turned away. Demand is just too high. According to Ancker, Providence Shelter had their first turnaway ever a couple weeks ago. And the Oshun Center, which is not actually a shelter but a drop-in center for women and families, filled up for the first time as well. "Families are reporting that they have to stay there during the day if they want to keep their spot during the night,” she explains.
What’s more, the wait time for long-term shelter placement is a least six months – sometimes as long as nine. Coalition on Homelessness Director Jennifer Friedenbach says the time spent in transition can be devastating.
“You have parents who are separated from their children,” she says, “or moving around from place to place to place, staying with friends here and there. You have people living in their cars, living in garages, having to stay in very unsafe situations that they would not normally be a part of because they don’t have another place to live.”
Adrian Allen and her son are staying with a friend right now – which is at least something. But that has its challenges, too, like assimilating to a different home dynamic.
“I just need to get out and be in my own situation and raise my son the way he’s supposed to be raised. He’s ready to move on. He says it every day: ‘I’m ready to go, mom. It’s time to go.’ So I’m doing what I have to do to try to make that possible."
That’s probably the goal of every single family on the waiting list. But it might take months – or years – before it happens.
Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness is waiting for a meeting with the mayor to discuss the ways the city can act to help families waiting for shelter, such as local rental subsidy and opening government-owned housing. What are your suggestions? Let us know on our Facebook page.