There is something very sad and very wrong about a child being homeless. Five years ago the Torres Community Shelter served 24 children during the entire year. Over the last 12 months we served 92 children. This has been a tremendous increase, and now roughly 12% of the people staying with us are children.
For those that don’t know, the Torres Community Shelter is the largest homeless shelter in California north of Sacramento. Every year we serve more than 700 people that can stay with us for up to 180 days. For someone who is homeless, finances are a big issue, so we don’t charge our guests for the services we provide but these services do cost us roughly $20 per day, per person. We provide case management for all of our guests that help with items like securing housing and obtaining appropriate benefits and jobs. We also ensure that our guests receive the daily personal items everyone needs and we provide a safe, secure and clean place to sleep, eat and take a shower. There is quite a lot that we provide for just per day per person but it certainly adds up. It’s important to share that our services are quite effective in actually helping get people out of homelessness. Over the last 12 months, 43% of our exiting guests left the Shelter into stable living situations!
Thankfully, our successes help many people including the children staying with us, however the large increase in the number of children we serve every year is proving to be a challenge. What we used to do was effective enough when we served 25 kids per year, but it doesn’t work so well now that we are serving close to 100 per year. When faced with a dilemma like this, we look at the reasons for this incredibly steep increase and we look for ways to mitigate the impact and adjust our services appropriately so we can better serve all the families as well as our other guests.
In order to better provide services for families, we’ve made changes over the past 5 years. These changes include everything from having two construction projects that added additional family rooms, to altering some of our policies to better accommodate families, to building stronger relationships with the agencies that have services dedicated to children. All of this and more helps us ensure that we are doing what we can to add some stability in the lives of the children and families we serve who are homeless.
Why have we seen such a steep increase in children served? There are a number of reasons, and I can speak best to the reasons we witness. First, even though most people prioritize the needs and well-being of children in their personal lives, this often does not translate into prioritizing that public policy really puts children first in our community. These contributing problems show up in dozens of ways from the inadequate funding of our foster care systems and child protective services to the stripping of school activities across the country that used to be considered sacrosanct and part of a complete and well-rounded education. It also includes the fact that so many people who lost their homes in the housing debacle were young families with young children that got in over their head, and that the job market has become so lean. Another factor is that our “welfare” system is still broken despite the two decades worth of well-documented, bi-partisan initiatives to reform it and in some ways it’s worse than it was before.
At the Torres Community Shelter, we have limited impact as to how our nation’s public policy needs to change to sincerely put children first. It’s important that e engage, advocate and share the impact of failed policy from our perspective, but our primary professional responsibility in this regard is to just ensure we are doing our best for the families with children that we serve. My personal responsibility in this regard is to do whatever I can to ensure that the 4 year olds and 14 year olds we are serving with their parents now don’t become our guests in 4 or 14 years when they are 18 and on their own.