For almost two years, Eva Morales moved from homeless shelter to homeless shelter. Sometimes she stayed with friends. On the worst nights, she slept in a friend’s car.
It was hard for Morales, but harder for her two small children, who had to adapt with each move, only to be uprooted again soon after. Her son, who is now 4, angered easily. He didn’t want to play with his 2-year-old sister and he refused to eat most of the food at the shelter.
That all changed when he started attending Head Start, a federally subsidized preschool program for low-income children.
“When he started going to school, he was more energetic. He relaxed; he was more patient with his sister and he started eating a little better. He would come home happy, singing and skipping,” Morales said.
Morales found the preschool for her son and home-based child care for her daughter with the help of a San Francisco County program that helps homeless families find and enroll in subsidized child care. San Francisco and Alameda are two California counties that have set up comprehensive programs in recent years specifically for homeless families. The programs support families throughout the entire process, from filling out paperwork to getting required immunizations and visiting different programs to decide what is the best fit for their child.
Other counties have programs to help all low-income families apply for child care, but most do not have services tailored to help homeless families navigate the system.
Preschool and child care can be crucial services for homeless children as they provide stability and a good foundation for learning. When a child experiences homelessness as an infant or toddler, it can cause delays in early development and make them more likely to struggle when they reach elementary school, according to a report by the National Center on Family Homelessness.
About 240,000 California children under age 6, about 8 percent of that age group statewide, experienced homelessness in 2015-16, according to the most recent estimate by the U.S. Department of Education. The department defines children as homeless if they live in a temporary shelter or place not designed to be lived in, like a car or a tent, or if their families are sharing housing with other families.
Most homeless families are eligible for federal or state-subsidized child care programs and in some cities there are nonprofit child care centers designed to serve homeless children, but families are often unaware of them. Even when they are aware, they may have trouble getting through all the paperwork or attending all the appointments they might need in order to enroll their children.
If families are not able to enroll in federal or state-subsidized programs because there is no room, San Francisco has a program that pays for child care for low-income families; homeless families are prioritized. Alameda County also has a voucher program just for homeless families who cannot find other child care subsidies.
One of the goals of programs like those in San Francisco and Alameda counties is to help homeless parents like Morales get jobs and housing. Without child care, they often have to take their children along with them to turn in applications for apartments and jobs and attend appointments with case managers.
“I would have to get the children up really early and take them with me, from one appointment to another, and sometimes not even eat in between back-to-back appointments,” Morales said. “The kids would get tired of just sitting in one place, and after awhile, they would start saying, ‘I want to go, I want to play, I’m hungry.’”
San Francisco has had a program to help homeless families find child care for more than a decade. It is run through the nonprofit Compass Family Services, which also operates one of several centers in the city where homeless people can go to look for shelter or other services. Last year, the organization helped place 315 children in child care. Case managers help homeless families fill out the city’s online application, which automatically matches families with subsidized child care programs in neighborhoods that are convenient for them. Compass also holds child care workshops once a week to explain different options for child care in the city.
On a recent afternoon, case manager Marisol Zepeda helped a mother fill out her online application as her 1-year-old boy played with toys. The mother explained that she, her husband, her two children and her mother were all sharing one bedroom in an apartment with nine other people. Zepeda helped her choose which kind of child care she wanted and which neighborhoods she would be open to and then explained to her that she would get a notification on her cell phone whenever an opening comes up. Parents can choose to accept a spot and call the provider to make arrangements, or they can choose to reject a spot if it does not fit their needs.
After filling out the application, Zepeda follows up regularly with families until they find care, helping them communicate with child care providers, if needed, and even accompanying parents like Morales as they visit child care centers or family child care homes to help them decide if it is a good fit for their children.
Reaching and following up with homeless families can be difficult. San Francisco has tried to meet that challenge by reducing the amount of paperwork parents have to sign, meeting them at shelters or wherever is best for them and offering on-site child care during appointments. It also helps that Compass Family Services offers other services. Many families come in looking for housing and then find out about the child care enrollment help.
“It needs to be accessible, it needs to be low barrier, with few hoops to jump through,” said Teresa Sal, director of case management at Compass. “From five years ago to now, we’ve done a lot to make it easier for families to get child care.”
Alameda County’s program, which started in May 2018 and is run through the nonprofit child care referral organization BANANAS, is much smaller than San Francisco’s. The program has helped 58 homeless children enroll in child care so far. The staff person in charge of working with homeless families, Tina Fleeton, says she has reached out to many more, but about 40 percent of families referred to BANANAS by shelters or other organizations never returned calls or did not show up to appointments. Fleeton has a greater success rate after families meet her and are able to build some trust.
One little boy stands out for Fleeton. When she met with his mother for the first time, he explored the BANANAS play lab, an area set up for children. The boy started out unsure of what to do — he threw the blocks and banged on the musical instruments. But then, he found the play kitchen area.
He got out play dishes, set the table, pretended to wash his hands and then sat at the table, folding his hands.
“Oh look, he found something he liked,” Fleeton said to his mother. She responded that when they had a home, in Washington, D.C., they spent a lot of time together in the kitchen, preparing meals to eat together. That was what her son was used to — he wanted a home.
Fleeton couldn’t get the boy a home, but she was able to help his mother enroll him in a Head Start program. She thinks the stability, a place to go to every day where he can learn and feel at home, is important for him.
“It was so special to me because I just saw how the child completely found something he was motivated in doing,” Fleeton said. “It made me feel good that she was able to get the service, because in their situation, that consistency wasn’t broken and it wasn’t lost.”
The Alameda County team hopes to expand the program in coming years.
“We’re trying to determine if this is going to tip the scales for their housing situation, if they are having steady subsidized child care, so they can work and go to school, and will that be the basis to really support the family to get them out of experiencing homelessness,” said Heather Lang, family services manager at BANANAS.
That seems to be the case for some parents like Morales in San Francisco. Shortly after her 2-year-old daughter was enrolled in a home-based child care program and her 4-year-old son was enrolled in Head Start, Morales was finally able to move into a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, through a transitional housing program that will pay half of her rent for three years. By then, both her children will be in elementary school and she hopes to have a steady job with an income that will allow her to pay her own rent.
Morales could hardly believe it when she finally got the key. She said her kids couldn’t believe it either. They had lots of questions: “Whose place is this? Are we going to live here? And we’re not going to move again?”
“No,” Morales answered. “We’re not going to move again.”