10/29/2012 09:16 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Homeless Families In The Bay Area Struggle For Shelter As Nights Cool Down

One couple and their 6-year-old son slept in a tent along the river. Another family spent the night in a friend's garage. A set of parents and their children stayed overnight in a laundromat.

Each of them told their stories last week to staff members at Maryhouse, a Sacramento day program for homeless families, said director Connie Frank.

"For the first time in 20 years, we are seeing at least one family every day walk through the door who slept outside the night before," Frank said. "We are talking about people with kids, toddlers, babies."

More often than not, "there is nowhere to send them," said Frank.

Desperation is increasing, she said, now that the weather is turning chilly and rainy. "It used to be easy to get someone into a shelter, or find a friend who could take them in, or give them bus transportation to a place where they could stay with a relative," Frank said. Because of a tough economy and government cuts to social programs, "that's just not the case anymore," she said.

Officials are trying to cobble together a winter-shelter program to accommodate as many as 250 people this year, using funding from the city and county of Sacramento, businesses and foundations, and individual donors. At the same time, they are trying to raise funds for an emergency housing program that would operate throughout the year, said Ben Burton, executive director of the nonprofit Sacramento Steps Forward, which administers homeless programs in the area.

For the third straight year, churches and other religious groups will host homeless single men and women on a rotating basis, offering them a place to spend the night during winter months. Volunteers of America is contracting with Sacramento Steps Forward to provide transportation, food and staffing.

Burton said the organization is seeking donations to fully fund the project, which typically runs from late November to early March and costs about $150,000 for the season. Last year, 20 "host congregations" housed about 100 people each night.

"We have high expectations," said VOA spokeswoman Christie Holderegger. "It's been a great experience for these congregations, and they want to bring in more services to the guests," such as haircuts, showers, and arts and crafts, she said.

For families with children this winter, the city and county have come up with a total of $250,000 for 100 beds in shelters and motels, said Burton.

Frank called the effort "totally inadequate" considering the number of families living in precarious circumstances.

"Last winter we had 152 families request assistance," and only 5 percent of them reported receiving a voucher for one month in a motel, she said.

Advocates for the homeless estimate that at least 1,000 people in Sacramento County are without permanent housing on any given night.

Recent statistics gathered by Sacramento Steps Forward showed that virtually all area shelters are full, with long waiting lists. St. John's Shelter for Women and Children had a list of 204 people as of Thursday.

Holderegger agreed that more space is needed for parents and children. In future years, she said, winter sanctuary organizers hope to offer a separate program for families.

"That really should be a priority," she said.

Maryhouse last year provided counseling and other services to nearly 2,000 families at its downtown campus, Frank said.

"Some of them are people who have stumbled across difficult times because of things that were out of their control," she said. "Others are individuals who have made very poor choices in their lives.

"The bottom line is that there are children involved, and they are sleeping out on the streets, and I'm shocked that as a caring community we don't do more for them."

Maryhouse has a small "crisis fund" for motel vouchers and Greyhound tickets for desperate families, she said. "But we're close to exhausting all the funds that we have."


Two websites with information on how to help homeless families in winter:

Sacramento Steps Forward:

Maryhouse Crisis Fund:, click on Maryhouse.

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