SF homeless families face difficult choice of shelter or school 

click to enlarge Sabrina Cruz, 44, says her and her family were living in Richmond last year but were evicted because the property was rented out illegally. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Sabrina Cruz, 44, says her and her family were living in Richmond last year but were evicted because the property was rented out illegally.

Sabrina Cruz, 44, sat on the worn wooden steps of a building on Turk Street in the Tenderloin, her crutches resting against the doorway. She was waiting for her husband, Diego Anderson, 45, to bring down a plate of food from the Coalition on Homelessness offices upstairs. About 30 homeless people had gathered for the nonprofit's free lunch on a recent weekday.

The couple are trying to get off the streets and into permanent housing. But they worry most about their 12-year-old daughter. Every day, the main focus for Cruz and Anderson is to find a safe place for the family to sleep.

"Some days it's a crapshoot," Cruz said.

They rely most on San Francisco's emergency family shelter in the Western Addition, known as First Friendship — although they nicknamed it the unflattering "family jail."

A few hours after lunch, around 2 p.m., the family headed over to the Main Library to meet up with their 12-year-old daughter. The girl has to leave her middle school in the Richmond every day before classes end at 3:20 p.m. to ensure the family is among the first in line for the first-come, first-served First Friendship, which opens at 3 p.m.

"She leaves every day at 1 o'clock," Cruz said. "We meet at the library so we can go to Friendship at 3 p.m. If we wait and if it's full, we don't have any bed. And we don't have a place to sleep that night."

Once they check in, they cannot leave until the next morning, except to smoke cigarettes.

For some homeless families in San Francisco, having a roof over their heads at night might mean making a similarly difficult decision as Cruz and Anderson about their children's schooling.

The 50-bed First Friendship is often a homeless family's last resort when other family shelters fill up. But First Friendship has a policy that all members of a family must be present to receive beds for the night. This policy, which is the only one of its kind at a city shelter, has recently come under sharp criticism for being inhumane and possibly illegal.

STRIPPED OF NORMALCY

Cruz is emotional when she talks about her daughter not being able to do things that young girls tend to do, such as look in the mirror and dance around a room.

"This is our only option, this is what we have," Cruz said of First Friendship. "With me having seizures, this stress is not good at all. They really need to realize we still human. Don't take our rights away because we are homeless. We still got rights. We still got feelings. We still human."

The family was living in the city of Richmond just last year, but were forced from their home, along with 25 others, after the building owner ran into trouble for illegally renting out the property.

"I would have never thought in a million years I would have been homeless," Cruz said. "I am 44. I would have never thought this. It is hard on us."

The family hopes to use city services to climb out of homelessness.

"We're jumping through hoops of fire to make sure we don't have to go through this no more," Anderson said.

'I AM VERY UPSET'

Patricia Doyle, director of operations for the Providence Foundation, which runs First Friendship, told The San Francisco Examiner last week that she was unaware of any parents taking their children out of school to obtain shelter beds.

"I'm saying that I have no idea," Doyle said. "Our shelter is not filled. It is not full to capacity. I have no idea that parents are taking their kids out of school. I have no idea what time the schools are out."

City officials and advocates for the homeless contend that the problem is very real and needs to be fixed.

"Families are trying to get there at 3 o'clock so they ensure they get a bed and their kids are missing school," said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. She emphasized how the policy prevents these homeless students from engaging in after-school activities like their peers who have homes. She also referred to the case of a teenager having to quit a school volleyball team.

Mother of three Ashley Stewart, 32, has a similar story. Her 12-year-old daughter attends middle school in the Marina and would like to participate in after-school programs but cannot.

"I don't want to miss my slot" at First Friendship, Stewart said.

The policy also raises legal questions related to California education laws, said Supervisor David Campos, who once worked as the general counsel for the San Francisco Unified School District.

"I am very upset," Campos said after learning about the shelter's policy during a recent Board of Supervisors committee hearing. "The law requires kids below a certain age to be in school. I think that it just doesn't make sense for us to have a situation that essentially is forcing a family to break the law."

"I mean, you could be cited for that," Campos told Joyce Crum, the director of homelessness for the Human Services Agency, which funds shelters, at the committee hearing.

ORIGINS OF THE POLICY

There were 2,094 homeless students registered in the school district as of October. Children between 6 and 18 years old are legally required to attend school. There are penalties for truants, defined by the California Department of Education as students who miss three or more school days annually without valid excuses or anyone who is tardy or misses more than 30 minutes of school on three occasions during the academic year.

Crum said there is no written policy about taking kids out of school.

"I can't speak to that issue that we are requiring them to take the kids out of school," she said. "I don't think it's anything written or our shelter provider has told a family that you must take the kids out."

On a "large day," Doyle said, the shelter has between 22 and 32 children, with about 35 percent school-age. "We have a very large number of toddlers," she added.

Demand for shelter beds fluctuates based on factors such as weather and other housing opportunities. The all-present policy seemingly caused more issues for families when the facility was reaching capacity on a regular basis, which it did throughout December.

"Our curfew is at 8 o'clock," Doyle said. "Families come at various times. It does fill up. But it hasn't been filling up. It fills up about 5:30, 6 o'clock, if it's going to fill up. But it hasn't filled up over the past 2½ months."

Doyle noted that when the shelter was filling up regularly, she hired a van driver to take the "overflow" to a 125-bed adult shelter in the Bayview that the Providence Foundation also operates.

Campos said at the hearing that it matters little whether there is a formal written policy about taking children out of school if it is happening anyway.

"If an agent of The City is basically giving families a choice between being on the street or taking the kid out of the school system, it's essentially the same," he said, adding that a change is needed not only because it is the humane thing to do but also to address "legal concerns here."

Crum said the policy about all family members being present was imposed in the first place by the Providence Foundation to address a problem of empty beds in times of high demand.

"Families would come in, they would leave and then not come back, which means that Providence was holding a shelter bed for three, four, five individuals in the house and then they wouldn't come back and they turned someone away," Crum said. "The discussion they had with us was making it a rule that all family members must come at the same time in order to secure a space."

Doyle elaborated on the intent of the policy. She said the shelter has had cases of children showing up alone and waiting for their parents to arrive.

"We allowed the children to come in [but] we ended up having to call [Child Protective Services] because the parents never showed up," Doyle said.

POSSIBLE SOLUTION

In addition to concerns over the policy, children also have to grapple with the fact that the shelter does not have showers. There are showers available at a women's drop-in center in the Mission, but the homeless coalition says it can be difficult for parents to bring their children there from the Western Addition and still get to school on time. That presents the difficult choice of being on time without bathing or being clean but late.

Both shelter issues can be resolved, but it will take significant investment. Up to $40,000 would be needed for a call-in reservation system for the shelter, and it would take another $240,000 or so to install showers.

Discussions are underway about changing the all-present policy.

"We have had meetings with the other shelter providers to talk about a call-in for Providence and to talk about relaxing the rules around all family members showing up," Crum said. "It's not something that we are not addressing."

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