Home fires burning

With hundreds of families and thousands of kids homeless in Boulder County, can more be done to help them rebuild their lives?

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Valeria Everett via Flickr

“I knew I was going to have to start at the bottom,” she says. “I guess I wasn’t really sure what that meant at the time.” 

It’s the last day of the Fourth of July weekend. Allison (not her real name) sits at a picnic table in an empty Louisville park. Long auburn hair, azure eyes, gossamer skin. She’s 44. A milkshake melts and foams beside her. Five kids. Four grandkids, two of which she raised. Married at 18. Divorced at 41. Homeless at 42. 

She talks about freedom, about what past dependence has cost her and her children. 

“That’s why I get so mad, because there was so much infidelity that I wasn’t paying attention to the kids,” she says. “My oldest daughter snuck out one night at 10 years old. One of her neighbor friends, I didn’t know, but she had an uncle that was there or a brother or something. Anyway, they told her to sneak out, and she did, and they took her to an apartment and there was four to six guys there, and they raped her and her friend. She didn’t even tell me. I didn’t find out for two years and by then shit had hit the fan. 

“At some point I’m going to get therapy because I want to see what happened, why I didn’t notice it.”

Hundreds of families are homeless in Boulder County. One in three children live in or near poverty. The rising cost of housing is the primary culprit; job loss, low wages and domestic abuse contribute as well. The impacts of homelessness on families are surprising and far-reaching. There are solutions, but they require funding and political will. 

Family homelessness is a problem out of plain sight — only 5 percent of families experiencing homelessness in Boulder County live on the street. This is the story of what it’s like to couch-surf; what it’s like to return to an abuser because you have no other option for shelter; what it’s like to start over, with mouths to feed and nothing in the pantry.

‘I dunno where to go’

Allison and her partner had been married 23 years when she decided to leave. 

“I was beginning to feel really hopeless. I was almost on the verge of just walking out on my own and just leaving everything,” she says.

Her husband took everything and moved in with his mother. Though Allison received alimony, it wasn’t enough to afford a place for her three children still under 18 and the two grandchildren for whom she was responsible. She hadn’t worked in years, a product of being under the thumb of her partner and which made the prospect of finding a job daunting. Not that one job guarantees financial security for a family of six in Boulder County. A family of four, according to County data, needs $94,500 to meet basic needs here, one of the highest rates in the state. About a quarter of families in Boulder County live below this threshold — that’s 7,200 kids.

“These are the working poor,” says Julie Van Domelen, executive director of Emergency Family Assistance Association (EFAA), one of the largest support groups for homeless families in the county. “You would think that with full employment locally we would see less [homelessness]. In fact, the housing cost and childcare costs are hammering families.”

Homeless family members who are employed often work the types of jobs (laborers, restaurant workers, seasonal positions) that don’t come with living wages or benefits (health care, paid sick leave and child care) that support families.

“These sectors, hospitality and tourism and food and beverage, those are the growth sectors if you look at the economic development strategies and plans, and yet those industries have lower than self-sufficiency wages on average,” Van Domelen says.

And the wage required to ensure self-sufficiency is getting higher. Wanda Pelegrina of the City of Boulder reports “an increase of families of lower-middle income needing support” over the last five to eight years.

It should be simple to determine if a family is homeless — do they have a home or not? But over half of homeless families couch-surf or stay with relatives, one-third are in temporary shelters and 8 percent stay in hotels. At what point is a family in between homes, or just figuring their situation out, and when are they homeless? Does it matter?

“I am very careful when I’m with the kids not to say they’re homeless,” says EFAA Children’s Program Coordinator Lindsey Warren. “They don’t view themselves as homeless. They say, ‘I have a bed and therefore I’m not the person that’s on the street. They see they have a home, even if it’s for a little bit of time.”

‘We were going to move forward’

Maria Santo and her two children became homeless in January 2017 when the father of her children moved in with another woman and she could no longer afford to rent her home in Lafayette. 

She couch-surfed for three weeks while she came to grips with her reality. “I wasn’t ready to go out on my own,” she says.

That’s when she accessed EFAA’s services. The family was put in emergency housing and later moved into transitional housing, where they’ve been since and can stay for up to two years. EFAA operates 57 units — Allison and her family stayed in EFAA housing while rebuilding their lives, too.

EFAA — along with OUR Center in Longmont and Sister Carmen in Lafayette — are often the first and only option for families in distress. These nonprofits work with Boulder County and city governments to offer a network of services to homeless families, providing everything from shelter and food to counseling, academic support and more.

The programs these nonprofits offer often provide the first opportunity for children to feel supported and do things their peers do. Something as simple as going for a hike may be impossible for families dealing with joblessness. “If the parents aren’t holding down a job, going on a hike is a luxury,” Warren says. 

“The goal is to let the children be children,” she continues. “A lot of times they are exposed to trauma. They take on these adult problems. Sometimes there are 11-year-olds responsible for their siblings and they just want to go out and play.”

There is a stigma about homelessness that both children and adults encounter; that there’s something wrong with them or that they cause their own financial insecurity. This perception can be damaging and belies reality, Van Domelen says.

“We have a lot of moral judgment made on folks in our communities that have economic challenges,” Van Domelen says. “That somehow they’re not making the right choices. The U.S. has the lowest income mobility and highest child poverty rate of any developed country. It’s structural. It’s beyond someone’s household budgeting skills … The folks we work with are working incredibly hard and are very savvy about how to make ends meet.”

Maria embodies that sentiment. She was “emotionally destroyed” after her separation and entry into EFAA’s sheltering services, but she explained to her children that “this was how it had to be,” and that they would resolve to pull themselves out of despair, with help from their new support network. 

“As a human, it’s our part to move forward. The help is out there,” Maria says. “If you want to move forward, there’s a lot of support in Boulder County, but you have to look for it.”

Still, the odds of achieving financial stability are stacked against some people, and those odds get worse when rising home prices, domestic abuse and income inequality are considered.

‘You become the last person to take care of’

When she was a kid, Allison’s stepdad made a bet with her uncle and the neighbor that she’d be pregnant by 16. It was 18, actually, the age she married her husband. 

She was in ninth grade, he in 11th, when they started dating. He had dependency issues, she says, and his actions foretold behavior to come. She’d break up with him and he’d come to her house, crying. 

“He’s really manipulative,” she says, shaking her head. “Even to this day, he’ll, like, cry in front of the kids and shit and I’m just like, ‘You fucking P.O.S., you don’t let your kids see you do that.’”

Allison’s mom would sympathize with him. Both her parents were alcoholics, she says. They couldn’t warn her about the red flags of emotional abuse.

“They weren’t able to be my parents,” she says. 

She’s angry about it. She writes to vent, and with detached amusement, says she takes Zumba classes to get the energy out. Only now, removed from the marriage and with her kids in a stable situation, can she begin to address her own issues.

Maria has never met Allison, but she explains how that reluctance to care for one’s self while homeless impacted her life.

“When you become dependent on somebody and that person is no longer there, you become the last person to take care of,” Maria says. “It took me a while to take care of myself.”

More than a quarter of homeless families in Boulder County experience domestic abuse. Boulder’s Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (SPAN) is a shelter and support agency that works with 2,000 domestic abuse victims and their children every year. Anna Tapp, SPAN executive director, says the organization has to turn away another 1,400 due to lack of resources. 

As was the case with Allison, abusers often create dependence on themselves, Tapp says, making the decision to leave a tough one for those on the receiving end of domestic violence.

“If someone is an abusive relationship but is economically dependent on their partner, it can be very scary when choosing between living with an abuser and living in your car,” Tapp says. “If you don’t have access to affordable housing or livable wage employment, that forces survivors into a cycle of homelessness. It requires them to return to an abuser.” 

This is exacerbated by rising home prices in Boulder County. Van Domelen says the average family of three in Boulder that accesses EFAA support spends 72 percent of their income on housing. 

“In years past, you lost your job or divorced or [experienced] domestic violence, you were at risk of homelessness. Now it’s your landlord that puts you at risk,” she says. “People are coming in and saying rent is being raised 30-40 percent. … It can only get worse, if you think about it. Wages are pretty stagnant and the cost of living and housing is going up, and affordable units are disappearing.”

Fifty-eight percent of homeless families in Boulder County cite the inability to pay their rent or mortgage as the primary cause of their situation. The seasonal nature of many low-income jobs puts many at risk as well. Less than 10 percent of homeless families are in that situation because of mental health or drug abuse issues.

Whatever the cause, homelessness, or the fear of becoming homeless, has a lasting effect on adults and children — the hidden impacts of failing to address home affordability, income inequality and the lack of nonprofit support.

‘One frickin’ thing after another’

All three of Allison’s daughters claim they have been abused (not by their mother) and all of them are currently in therapy for the alleged abuse.

“It’s just been like one frickin’ thing after another,” Allison says.

She suggests the abuse her eldest daughter endured may have led her to heroin, an addiction that resulted in Allison eventually taking her daughter’s two children into her own care. 

If her options were better, if housing was cheaper, Allison says she would’ve left her marriage sooner — maybe, she says, she could have spared her family a lot of pain had she done so. 

In families where domestic violence occurs, ensuring children have access to a normal, stable education is paramount for their long-term success, but it can be tricky. 

“If the abuser knows where the kids go to school, know the kids’ schedules, know what sports they’re in, going back to [their] school poses dangers,” Tapp says. “It’s one of the greatest fears the moms we work with experience — the feeling when kids are at school and the abuser knows their schedule.”

Even without abuse, the effect homelessness has on children can be massive. Low-income students fail to graduate high school at five times the rate of middle-income students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The effects of family poverty “comes out in many ways,” Van Domelen says, from kids not being prepared for kindergarten to older students unable to access an iPad or WiFi connection, necessities in today’s education system. And failing to get those resources, and failing in school, puts kids at risk of perpetuating the homelessness cycle when they get older, she says.

‘A community of haves and have-nots’

Van Domelen says it would require 5 percent of the City of Boulder’s $353.7 million annual budget to solve family homelessness. But, more importantly, it would also require community commitment and political will.

“The number of kids going through this is far beyond the resources that are put to it,” she says. 

The City gave $273,000 this year to EFAA, SPAN and others through its Human Services Fund to support family homelessness, about one-third of what it gave to support adult homelessness sheltering and resources services. The City does, however, invest heavily in the affordable housing program, which helps shelter some previously homeless families.

“Boulder considers itself a progressive community caring about individuals and the environment, but there’s a lack of awareness about things like child poverty,” Van Domelen says. “I don’t think if you ask the average person, ‘Is this an issue?’ they might not put it high on the list or on the list at all. It’s kind of invisible. … It’s a community of haves and have-nots, and the have-nots have a tough time making it here.”

Tapp says residents, in Boulder at least, need to be willing to embrace “models of affordable housing we haven’t really been able to explore largely because of the neighborhood pushback and zoning restrictions” — particularly affordable multi-unit buildings in neighborhoods that don’t want that sort of construction.

Finding a solution is nothing short of finding out what Boulder County truly values, Tapp says.

“Are we OK with the fact if you have a crisis with your family and lose your housing that that often means you have to leave the community?”

You can help outside of demanding systemic change, EFAA’s Warren says — the group gets most of its funding and supplies from private donors, citizens of Boulder County, and more is always needed.

Maria and Allison appreciate all the funds, volunteer hours and donations they received from Boulder County citizens via EFAA. It’s helped them restart their lives. 

“I sure feel secure now,” Allison says. “This is my ship now. I decide where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.”