Scenes at the YWCA's Family Center: Daily life at the Family Center is filled with routine and rules. Institutional-style living means a lot of noise, little privacy and constant supervision by the staff and security guards. Photo by Tim Johnson.
Wendy’s downward spiral began the day the engine of her old van sputtered, coughed and died. “Then I lost my job, I lost my apartment, my grandmother died,” says Wendy, 34, a single mom with two teenage daughters. In a matter of months, the life of the formerly self-sufficient woman went from bad to worse to homeless. Wendy and her daughters stayed with a series of friends and relatives, a few weeks at a time, sometimes longer, until they wore out their welcome through no fault of their own.
“At the last place, my friend gave her daughter, who is 3 years old, the note to give to me that said we couldn’t stay there anymore,” says Wendy, who asked that her last name not be disclosed.
In the midst of a relentless recession that has wreaked havoc on the economy and impacted the lives of so many families, Wendy’s story is all too common and has brought a record number of desperate, homeless families to the YWCA’s Family Center, an overcrowded emergency shelter on the east side near Fifth Avenue. “It’s nice here; we’re lucky to have a place like this,” Wendy says. “My oldest daughter was embarrassed at first to be here. But now she’s accepted it, she knows it helps us out.”
As she speaks, the loudspeaker blasts an announcement: “The library has to be cleaned before the communities can be opened.” It’s about 4:30 in the afternoon and scores of parents and their children are eating snacks at the tables in the main room of the Family Center, which is buzzing quite loudly with the activity and voices of more than 100 people. Several other children, including Wendy’s daughters, are in the teen center down the hall, which is staffed with AmeriCorps volunteers. The communities are the four sections of the building where the dormitory-style rooms are located. And nobody gets in until the library is spotless.
“We have more people here than we’ve ever had before,” says Jessica Wichtman, the YWCA’s community relations and volunteer manager. It’s, of course, due to the economy, she says, adding it took until July for the numbers to really surge because “there’s usually a two-year lag from the start of the recession until we see it—that’s when unemployment runs out and other resources run out and people wind up homeless.”
In 2009, 629 families were provided with temporary housing by the Family Center, including 1,200 children. Through November 2010, the center helped 650 families and 1,450 children.
The typical family at the center consists of a single mother in her 20s or 30s and two children. There also are single-father and two-parent families, as well as those with five or more children. “We once had a family of 17: a mother and father and 15 children,” Wichtman says, adding they did find a permanent place to live.
The Family Center has 50 sparsely furnished rooms, each with two sets of bunk beds. Since July, the facility has averaged 65 families a night—and the overflow families are bused to an economy-style hotel in the area. (The rooms are paid for by the YWCA.) “We’re seeing more and more families without a past history of homelessness,” says Linda Maxwell, the YWCA’s family housing and advocacy manager. “We’re seeing people with college degrees, with long work histories, who can’t find a job and had their houses foreclosed and are now homeless.”
Maxwell oversees the center’s three family advocates, who meet with each family and help them devise a plan to use all the local, state and federal services available to them. No family is forced to leave until they have somewhere to go, either an apartment or house they can afford on their own or with the help of a Section 8 voucher (a program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that subsidizes housing for low-income families). They also can get assistance from the three nonprofits the YWCA partners with: Homeless Families Fund, Volunteers of America and Salvation Army.
The goal is to get families out in three weeks. That’s getting hard to do, though. “The average length of stay is starting to increase because the resources of our partners are stretched so thin,” says Molly Rampe Thomas, the YWCA’s director of housing and youth services.
“It’s hard mentally; I’ve been depressed a few times,” Wendy says of the recent turn her life has taken. “I raised my girls by myself and I always worked.”
Feelings of depression, anxiety and stress are common and natural, Maxwell says. “It’s traumatic to lose your home, especially for children,” she says. “Kids don’t understand what’s happening, and how do you explain to a 4-year-old what’s happening? Children need routine in their lives and to feel safe and protected.”
Daily life at the Family Center is indeed filled with routine and rules. Institutional-style living means a lot of noise, little privacy and constant supervision by the staff and security guards.
“Yes, this can be a stressful place,” Maxwell says. “But the way we look at it is that this is a place where a family can come in and have some stability and get the services and help they need and we can instill in them a plan for their future and some sense of hope.”
Breakfast is served starting at 6:30 am and soon after children are bused to school, almost always to the one they attended before they left their homes. The younger children spend the day at the on-site daycare and preschool centers. This allows the parents the freedom to meet with their advocate, look and interview for jobs or travel to other agencies around the county for help.
It’s forbidden for families to go to their rooms during the day, and there are regular searches for drugs and alcohol. All the adults must be back at the Family Center by 6 pm and check with a member of the security staff, who sits by the front door with a clipboard, pen and list of names.
Dinner is served from 6 to 8 pm, in two shifts because there are so many families staying at the center. It is provided and cooked by volunteer groups. “This saves us about $200,000 a year,” Wichtman says, adding the Family Center’s annual budget is $2.5 million.
Families must be in their rooms for the night at 9 pm. “If you follow the rules and don’t get any write-ups, everything is fine,” Wendy says. The worst part of staying here, she says, is the no-television rule. “Sometimes on the weekends we’ll wheel out a TV to watch something specific,” Wichtman says. “But if we left it out all the time, this could lead to arguments and fights about what to watch.”
Families are allowed to bring only a minimal amount of personal belongings and enough clothes to last seven days (there is a laundry room on site). Most of these homeless families didn’t have many possessions to begin with and store what little they have left with family or friends—if they can find someone with some extra storage space.
Wendy hit rock bottom the day she had to put her daughters’ beds on the curb with the trash. “I have some things in my sister-in-law’s house, but other things, our furniture, we just had to leave on the side of the street,” she says.
Monica, 27, has a similar story. She lost her job and was set to move to Tennessee where her father—and work—awaited. When the job fell through, Monica already had vacated her Columbus house and suddenly found herself unemployed and homeless.
“I came in here with my head up and was willing to accept help and this has been a blessing,” says Monica, who has an 8-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son. “The worst part here is all the sickness. They give flu shots and keep it clean, but there are a lot of children here and they all seem to get sick and my children have been sick. And there’s no personal space and no privacy and a lot of noise all the time. And there are some people here who walk around negative, but I say you came here by your choice, so make the best of it.”
Although she has yet to find a job, Monica will leave the Family Center in a few days. She discovered a place to live and the Salvation Army helped her with the housing deposit, in addition to paying off utility bills. She is one of the lucky ones. Monica has a hard-to-come-by Section 8 voucher, which will pay the majority of her monthly rent.
The center’s many success stories are what keep Maxwell going. “Yesterday, a 23-year-old mother and her 4-year-old child left,” she says. “To see the joy and her ear-to-ear grin was wonderful. It was hard for her to be homeless and be here, and now she was back on her own, she has a job and a place to live, so when this happens, it makes it all worth it and we did it together, as a team.”
Not all who leave stay away. The recidivism rate at the Family Center is about 10 percent. The barriers that can lead to a return to homelessness, Maxwell says, include a poor employment record, a criminal record, drug and/or alcohol problems and mental health issues.
Curtis, 40, and Christina, 31, who are together but not married, moved out of the Family Center in mid December after a month-long stay. Christina has four children, ages 2, 10, 11 and 13, who lived with her and Curtis at the facility, while his six children, who range in age from 4 to 19, were at his father’s house in West Virginia.
Their road to homelessness began soon after Curtis was released from prison. “Christina got evicted from the place she was staying and we stayed with a friend for a while, but then we had to leave,” Curtis said in early December. “For a while, we stayed at a hotel, but then she lost her job and we couldn’t afford the $200 a week.”
“This is the first time I was ever this far down,” Christina added. “But this isn’t a bad place, if you need a place to go.” With help from Volunteers of America, they found a home on the east side of Columbus. “So tomorrow,” Christina said on the eve of the move, “the kids will get on their buses for school and then the Volunteers of America van will pick us up at 10:30 and take us to our new home and we’ll pick the kids up here, at the Family Center, after school and take them home.”
“And now we get to spend Christmas at home,” said Christina’s 10-year-old son.
Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer.