Single moms often forgotten in San Francisco’s homeless crisis

Every day hundreds of single moms and their children struggle to find shelter and survive in one of the most expensive housing markets in the US

They sleep on couches, in cars, and on the floors of churches. Every day hundreds of single moms and their children struggle to find shelter for the night and survive in San Francisco, which has one of the most expensive housing markets in the US.

A one-night count of the homeless in January 2015 showed almost 7,500 adults, children and youth. But homeless rights advocates say single moms are an invisible, uncounted group because they usually sleep on couches of friends and family members or sleep in their cars before they are forced out on the street.

Domestic violence is a leading cause of why women have to leave their homes and the lack of affordable housing in San Francisco is what keeps them homeless, said Carla Praglin, director of case management at Compass Family Services.

Martha Cruz-Dicent 45 years old

Martha Cruz-Dicent and children Victor and Pilar, a homeless family in San Francisco. Martha drives for Uber to make ends meet. Photograph: Stephen McLaren for the Guardian

I never thought I would be homeless. I had a normal life and upbringing and I want to give that to my kids, said 45-year-old Martha Cruz-Dicent, who has a four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son. They live in a family shelter in San Francisco. She became homeless in 2011 in Pennsylvania when her former husband kicked her out after they had a violent fight.

He gave me one of the cars and said Get out. That car was my shelter for weeks until I found a safe house in New Jersey, she said. I came to California because I was offered a job but when I got here there was no job and I was homeless again.

Cruz-Dicent started driving for Uber in November because it offers her flexibility but so far it hasnt been lucrative. After all of my expenses I only earned $28 last month, but Ive heard it takes time to learn how to make money driving. Most of her money goes to gas and making payments on the used minivan she owns.

She says that she looked on Facebook to find friends she could stay with or ask for help. When you are homeless you have to ask everyone for everything. I wasnt used to that, Im still not used to that, Cruz-Dicent said.

Mahena Julissa 22 years old

Mahena Julissa and children Maximillian and Sofia, a homeless family having dinner in San Francisco. Photograph: Stephen McLaren for the Guardian

I walk all over San Francisco knocking on peoples doors to see if I can clean their house. Some let me clean and pay me $20 for the day but others dont give me anything at the end of the day and kick me out, said Mahena Julissa, an undocumented migrant and homeless mother of two in San Francisco.

In 2013 Julissa made a dangerous journey from her native El Salvador through Mexico and to the US. She rode the bus at times but walked most of the way with her then newborn son and two-year-old daughter Sofia.

I had to escape because the gang members in my city were threatening me. They would beat me up and threaten to kill me if I didnt join the gang or pay them $300 a month, she said.

Julissa is also a victim of domestic violence and recalls the last time she saw her husband. He beat me up so much that it made me go into labor early and I had my son three months early. I had internal bleeding, she said.

As an undocumented migrant Julissa cant receive state or city benefits, including food assistance.

I have $3 in my purse right now and my children and I survive on a daily basis. I never know where the next meal will come from.

Shaunte Spruell 46 years old

Shaunte Spruell and daughter Dasjaunae Green at the Compass drop-in center for homeless families in San Francisco. Photograph: Stephen McLaren for the Guardian

Ive been couch surfing and in and out of homeless shelters for almost 12 years, about the time that my youngest daughter was born, said 46-year-old Shaunte Spruell.

The hardest point for me was last year when I got caught stealing laundry detergent from a store. I went to jail for a month and there wasnt anyone to keep my 12-year-old daughter so she had to go to Child Protective Services, Spruell said.

Spruell says she receives $300 a month from CalWorks, a welfare program that gives cash aid and services to eligible families. She has tried looking for housing outside San Francisco but cant afford to be without money for the couple of months it can take to transfer her benefits to another city.

I will be without money or food during that time, so I am stuck, she said.

At most of the emergency shelters in San Francisco you have to sleep on the floor and I cant do that because of my bad back. The long-term shelters are constantly full so that means I have to constantly look for a place for Dasjaunae and I to sleep.

My daughter misses school often because we move around so much and I cant get her there in time. Finding a place to sleep every night is a full-time job and is exhausting.

Albrina Edwards 22 years old

Albrina Edwards and Dante McGee, who are homeless in San Francisco. Photograph: Stephen McLaren for the Guardian

The hardest thing about couch surfing with kids is that you cant control who is in the house and around your kids. The last house I was staying at, people were smoking weed around my kids so I kept calling the family shelters to see if I could get in, said 22-year-old San Francisco native Albrina Edwards.

Edwards has two sons, aged two and five. She works almost 30 hours a week but says its not enough to find a place and pay for expenses in San Francisco. She currently lives in a family shelter, which allows families to stay up to six months.

I called the family shelters for months but couldnt get in. Finally, last month they had space for us. It was a good day, said Edwards, who is also working to get her high school diploma.

Her five-year-old son Dante has a hearing disorder and requires constant medical attention.

Between appointments with my case workers, school appointments, doctors appointment for both boys, work, and classes, there isnt any time left for me to take care of myself, Edwards said.

I want to be better for my children. I want to work hard and show them that anything is possible.

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