Editorials

Good ideas emerge to get Central Valley’s homeless families off the streets

On a cold, rainy fall day a young mother is sleeping alongside a Fresno street where food is being handed out to homeless people. She pulls herself out of her sleeping bag. Her infant daughter follows.

Up in Sacramento, a different mother is awakened by daybreak. She rolls over and gently nudges her children to wake up, too. They are in the back seat; she’s slept the night in the front seat of the car they stay in.

Far from being fiction, these are the realities of how some families exist in the Central Valley today — and indeed across the state. Within the overall number of homeless people is the subset of families, typically mothers with one or more children, but also dads and kids.

Unlike most homeless people, parents with children are reluctant to use social services, experts say, for fear of having their children taken away because of their homelessness. That won’t happen if the children are being cared for, social service representatives emphasize. But the fear among parents persists, and it pushes many of them to try to hide out in a camping spot or park their vehicles away from view as much as possible.

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Akifa Frost, who is formerly homeless, holds a photograph of her daughter, Naszar’ie Butler, who died in July, as her 2-year-old daughter, Naszirah, looks on in their Central Fresno apartment. Frost struggled to get shelter for her family. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Efforts are under way to try to address the critical needs that families face. In Fresno, new shelter housing has opened and is specifically for families. In Sacramento, a safe-parking program is being developed. Such programs need more money, however, as well as relentless prioritizing by government. A recent tragedy shows why.

A baby’s death

The plight of the young mother, Akifa Frost, was documented in a story by Fresno Bee reporter Carmen George. At the moment she crawled out of the sleeping bag that day last November, Frost had a young daughter. They had previously been in an apartment, but lost it and became homeless. She went to live with relatives out of state, but then returned to Fresno for doctor appointments, as Frost was pregnant. She gave birth to a second daughter in April.

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Fresno’s network of homeless assistance agencies gave Frost their services, but she dropped out of help, sometimes due to her own making. The main challenge she faced is the shortage of housing for homeless families. The death of 3-month-old Naszar’ie must serve as community motivation to make sure no more babies come to such a tragic demise.

Toward that end, 50 new beds dedicated for homeless people — including families — opened in July in a converted Fresno hotel, helped by $2.1 million in state funding to provide services. Homeless families have housing needs different from those of single people living on the streets; for one thing, children should not sleep near other adults who are not family. The converted Hacienda Hotel offers families the chance to have their own room, which is most beneficial.

Along with housing, the program offers social workers who can help a mom with children find better accommodations than the motel.

The new beds add to nearly 150 existing ones families can use that are offered by the Fresno Rescue Mission, as well as 162 beds offered to domestic violence victims at the Marjaree Mason Center.

What will it take to help more families? More money to fund more motel conversions, for one thing.

Sleeping in a vehicle

In Sacramento County, a count done by Sacramento State students uncovered that 500 people were routinely living out of their vehicles. Of that, 100 were children.

So several council members are working to launch a safe parking program as yet another way to provide a more secure form of temporary housing.

The program would work like this: A person or family sleeping in a vehicle would be assigned a case worker. That social worker would help develop a plan with the family or individual to address their issues and move them toward more permanent housing.

The family or person could then drive into the safe parking lot at 7 each night, knowing it has on-site security. Restrooms would be in place, as well as showering and meeting rooms where food would be distributed. Participants would need to leave the lot at 7 the next morning.

One key to the program is to find existing parking lots that might already have restroom, bathing and meeting facilities nearby. If that can be done, operating costs go down, and funds can be put into case management.

City officials are reviewing how safe-parking programs are working in other California cities where they are already operating, such as San Diego, Oakland and Santa Barbara.

One council staff member working on the project does not expect it to come to the council for approval until next year.

Chipping away at homelessness

Homelessness can seem unsolvable. Causes are many: substance abuse; veterans suffering with PTSD; domestic violence; mental illness; and job losses in a state where housing is increasingly unaffordable.

Only by relentlessly chipping away will state and local officials bring about any lasting solution. Converting motels and making parking lots safe for overnight use are relatively simple, but effective, ways to deal with homelessness, especially when it involves families.

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