Skip to main content

Features

Families in crisis

Family homelessness is a growing problem, and the government’s rapid rehousing policy may not be helping

Families in crisis

A homeless family outside the van they live in at McKay School Park in Salem, Ore. (Anna Reed/Statesman-Journal/AP)

Patience Merchant’s 6-year-old son Kwama and 3-year-old daughter Aliyah don’t remember ever having a stable home. When Kwama was 3 months old, Merchant left his father over what she says was domestic abuse. She and her children have been shuffling in and out of emergency shelters ever since.

At 25 years old, with wide, guileless eyes and smooth ebony skin, Merchant looks like a kid herself. When a new boyfriend sold Merchant a dream—let’s pool our money, leave Minnesota, and fly off to California to start a new life—she dreamed along, imagining golden sunshine, palm-tree-shaded neighborhoods, and a happy family. That dream burned to a crisp, she said, when the boyfriend ran away with everything soon after they arrived in Los Angeles last August.

About 2.5 million American children, half of them under the age of 5, experience homelessness at some point each year.

Once again, she and her two kids were back on the streets, this time in an unfamiliar city. For days they set up tents at the beach, in parks, or between alleys. Sometimes strangers yelled at her, demanding she leave the premises. One man got so belligerent that Merchant whipped out a knife and warned him to back away. The scariest moment, though, was when police officers approached her. She worried they might call Child Protective Services, so she fibbed: “We’re camping, just having fun. We’ll pack up and leave soon. Thank you, officers.”

Meanwhile, Kwama would ask, “What’s going on, Mama? What we gonna do now, Mama?”

“Don’t worry, baby, God is going to help us,” she assured the boy. But when he wasn’t looking, she wept: “Oh God, please help. I’m lost. I don’t know where else to go.”

Hans Gutknecht/Los Angeles Daily News via AP

Christine Wade, left, sorts clothing with her children in the family’s tent provided by the city in a sanctioned encampment in San Diego, Calif. (Hans Gutknecht/Los Angeles Daily News via AP)

MERCHANT AND HER CHILDREN are one of tens of thousands of America’s homeless families—a population that has become more prevalent since the 1980s. The Merchants are a typical modern homeless family: a single mother with small children, fleeing domestic abuse and sinking into poverty. Most of these mothers have limited education and little or no job skills or work experience. About 90 percent say they’ve been physically or sexually abused, and many suffer from depression.

Out of an estimated 550,000 homeless people in the nation, about 35 percent are homeless families, according to 2016 federal data. But many more are “invisible”—tucked away in seedy motels and doubled up in friends’ or relatives’ homes. About 2.5 million American children, half of them under the age of 5, experience homelessness at some point each year. Many struggle to attend school regularly and display higher rates of mental health issues, behavioral problems, and delayed development.

Gregory Bull/AP

Two young girls play outside their apartment near Denver, Colo. The apartment was part of a “Housing First” initiative to help homeless families. (Gregory Bull/AP)

In the last few years, federal and local agencies have been trying to solve the growing problem of family homelessness through rapid rehousing, which provides housing with as few preconditions as possible. This “Housing First” approach connects people to housing as quickly as possible, without requiring employment, sobriety, service participation, or absence of a criminal record. Instead of long-term housing support, rapid rehousing provides participants with short-term rental assistance and optional services, usually for about four to six months.

Can a free but temporary apartment fix the issues that cause a family to be homeless in the first place?

This novel approach, though, may be leaving some families in the lurch. Evidence from anti-poverty organizations and their clients suggests that rapid rehousing may not be an effective long-term solution for many homeless families.

The problem: The realities of family homelessness are complex, and the parents in these families often struggle with multiple issues that make it difficult to hold a job, pay monthly bills, and care for their children. Can a free but temporary apartment fix the issues that cause a family to be homeless in the first place?

Kathryn Scott/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Jennifer Pankey walks with her daughters Maggie and McKenzie. (Kathryn Scott/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

AS AN EXAMPLE, take a single mother like Jennifer Pankey. At one time, she had never cooked a dinner for her two daughters, had never read them a bedtime story, and had never opened a bank account—because no one ever taught her how.

Pankey says she grew up in a family with an alcoholic father and a codependent mother. She’s been using meth and drinking since she was 11. After leaving an abusive boyfriend, Pankey became homeless: She crashed at her parents’ or current boyfriend’s house, spent six months cramped in a car, and sometimes passed out on the streets. She left her daughter with her mother so that CPS wouldn’t take her away.

When Pankey faced the unbearable pain of possibly losing her kids, and decided to make a change, a program was available to help.

Pankey once had a list of “I will nevers”—I will never abuse drugs while pregnant, I will never take my kids to a crack house, I will never go to jail, I will never sleep on the streets—then one day she realized she had broken all of them. After her newborn second daughter tested positive for drugs, CPS took both daughters away from her. Pankey finally decided that things had to change.

She spent 10 months in rehab. Then, a local service provider in San Diego offered her housing subsidies. At another time in her life, she would have taken the offer without hesitation. But by then, Pankey knew enough about herself to know she needed more than quick and easy housing: “I wasn’t ready. I wouldn’t have any reason to stay clean. I had been an addict for 29 years of my life, and that wasn’t going to change in 10 months.”

Research suggests Pankey may have been right: Many rapid rehousing participants cannot maintain housing for long because rapid rehousing doesn’t help them find employment, increase income, or achieve long-term housing security, according to a 2017 study. Once their short-term subsidies end, many families move out or double up within a year.

Greg Schneider/Genesis

Andy Bales outside the Union Rescue Mission in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles (Greg Schneider/Genesis)

Nevertheless, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) continue to promote rapid rehousing as a key national strategy to end family homelessness because of two main reasons: bottom line and ideology. Rapid rehousing is the least costly housing option, and many homeless advocates believe that family homelessness is primarily a housing affordability issue.

HUD’s preference for rapid rehousing has affected other programs. While federal funds for rapid rehousing have increased more than tenfold, from $13 million in 2012 to $198 million in 2015, funds for transitional housing decreased from $417 million in 2012 to $172 million in 2015.

Transitional housing, though, is what Pankey says helped get her back on her feet. At her rehab program, a counselor recommended she try a 1,000-day transitional housing program for homeless families in North County San Diego. There, for the first time in her life, people held Pankey accountable for her actions and encouraged her every step of the way. During 75 hours of coaching, three years of intensive job-readiness and life skills classes, and 160 support group meetings, Pankey learned how to parent, manage money, be a good employee, and serve others.

Today Pankey, 37, is eight years sober. She works as a manager at the program’s aquaponics farm, pays her rent and taxes, and is studying to become a radiation therapist. CPS returned her two daughters: McKenzie is a high-school senior who has a 4.0 GPA, plays the clarinet, and aims for college scholarships, and Maggie is in kindergarten.

Pankey remembers when she used to wake up “hating myself, disgusted with myself.” She felt paralyzed by her circumstances and saw herself as a victim: “I was just always like, ‘Give me, give me, give me.’ It was never my fault. I never took responsibility for anything.” When she faced the unbearable pain of possibly losing her kids, and decided to make a change, a program was available to help.

But last year that program, Solutions for Change, lost $600,000 worth of HUD funding because it refused to follow the “Housing First” approach and allow active drug users into its program. The sudden loss of funds forced Solutions to lay off employees and close an intake center, even though more than 300 families are on its waiting list.

‘We’re leaving kids on the streets, and they’ll be tomorrow’s sickest, tomorrow’s generation of chronically homeless adults.’ —Andy Bales

With loss of funding, what happens to families like Pankey’s, who need a safe, drug-free, structured environment before they can attain housing stability and thrive? What happens to families like Patience Merchant and her two kids, who need immediate relief from the streets and need help finding a source of income?

For Merchant, help came through a couple who found her in a back alley and asked her if her kids were hungry. At first Merchant was wary, but her son Kwama yelled, “I want McDonald’s!” So the couple took them out to dinner, paid for a two-night stay at a motel, and gave Merchant information about available shelters and services in LA. Soon afterward, she took public transit to Union Rescue Mission (URM) in downtown LA.

The CEO of that mission, Andy Bales, says it’s not a coincidence that family homelessness has skyrocketed even as LA refocuses its resources on “one size fits all” rapid rehousing and “Housing First” programs. An emergency shelter cannot meet all the needs of the homeless, and in a homeless “epidemic” where people are losing homes faster than the city can house them, more alternative options are needed, not fewer, he says: “There is no reason to have women and children suffering on the streets while we build a few units at a time, thinking we’ll solve homelessness one day. … Meanwhile, we’re leaving kids on the streets, and they’ll be tomorrow’s sickest, tomorrow’s generation of chronically homeless adults.”

URM says it never turns a family away. On any given night, about one-third of the 1,300 people who sleep at URM are families. If the day room is full, URM clears out other rooms to set up cots and lay out blankets for people. Each family has a different story and different needs: One mother of five kids has the mental and social development of a child. Another woman, 23, said she’s never had a real home since she entered the foster system at age 4, and now the streets feel more like home.

During her first night at URM, Merchant lay down on a cot with her two children and couldn’t sleep—all the stress of surviving the streets avalanched on her, and she had to keep reminding herself that she and her children were safe.

It took days to adjust. After two months at the mission, Merchant had gained back the weight she lost and could laugh and joke freely again. Today, Merchant is no longer at URM, and although she’s not yet found permanent housing, she says she has found a job as a janitor and is on a long waiting list for low-income housing. Her kids attend a local school.

The day they arrived at URM, Merchant had made a promise to her son: “Baby, I’ll make sure this is our last stop.” This time, she says, she intends to keep that promise.

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.