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Fremont Homeless Families are Struggling

20 October 2008 No Comment

Story by Linsay Rousseau Burnett

Fremont, considered the “Gateway to Silicon Valley,” may be an expensive suburb, but it is also home to a hidden homeless population.

The cost of rental properties in Fremont is higher than San Francisco; the city also has a larger number of homeless children than the national average. And the recent economic downturn has caught these homeless in a painful squeeze.

Louis Chicoine, executive director of the Tri-City Homeless Coalition, said that Fremont has between 700 and 1,000 homeless people on any given night.

“There has been a five to 10 percent increase over the past year resulting from a chronic housing problem and the nation’s economic state,” he said.

Bonnie Wilson, the Coalition’s volunteer coordinator, has witnessed this increase at the Sunrise shelter, Fremont’s largest homeless shelter.

“We have rooms for up to ten families and there’s 33 families on a waiting list with people calling everyday,” said Wilson.

Kevin and Sarah Buford and their two children, ages four and six, picked at their food at the Centerville Presbyterian Church, which holds a biweekly free dinner program. This was their first visit to a free meal program.

“I did custom flooring but there’s no work because no one’s building homes. I just couldn’t keep up with the bills, so we were evicted,” said Kevin Buford, 33.

His wife Sarah, 29, wiped mascara from her puffy eyes. She spent an hour talking with the pastor of the church, crying about finding housing for the night.

“He just gave me a list [of shelters] and did a prayer for me,” she said, “All the shelters are closed now. Our stuff’s in our truck so we can’t sleep there. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Sarah Buford said that she is grateful her children are young enough not to fully understand what is going on, and she is committed to keeping them in school to maintain some consistency.

This consistency has been difficult for Bridget (who did not want to be identified by her last name) and Steve Rusher’s three children, a son, eight, and two daughters, 11 and 18.

The family has been in and out of shelters for more than three years, often sleeping in the cab of Rusher’s big rig truck.

“You have to know how to work the system to get any help and the shelters are a joke,” said Bridget.

She specifically referred to the Sunrise shelter’s sister program, Winter Relief, which operates at six different churches from November to April throughout the tri-city region.

Rusher, 47, was frustrated that the family was forced to change churches every 30 days and that there was no communication with the children’s schools.

“I’ve had to pull the kids out of school three times because they [program administrators] said they had to be at a school closer to the churches,” said Bridget.

Bridget said that the shelter never gave her children the school supplies they were supposed to receive as a part of the California McKinney-Vento homeless children’s act. She also said that the children were routinely made fun of at school because she did not have access to a washing machine to clean their clothes.

Out of all these factors, Bridget’s biggest complaint was that “then they [program administrators] made me choose between having a roof over our head or my kids going to the doctor.” Bridget’s said that her ex-husband was abusive to her and her children. As a result, she said that her two youngest children suffer from attention deficit hyper-activity disorder, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We had notes proving that they had doctors’ appointments and would miss curfew. But they didn’t care,” said Bridget, “So we got kicked out because I wasn’t going to jeopardize my kids’ health.”

Sitting on the floor of the church with her five-year-old son, Jane (who did not want to be identified by her last name), 26, is worried about his future. Jane said she became homeless after running away from her ex-husband who was beating her.

One night, the police raided the tent shelter she was living in, arresting everyone. After testing her urine for drugs (which came up negative), “The police came into my cell and told me I was pregnant.”

Jane was in and out of shelters, dodging attacks from her ex-husband, before finally securing a Section 8 apartment. Section 8 provides government sponsored subsidized housing for low-income families and individuals. “I’m proud to take care of my place, proud to be there,” said Jane

Jane is on disability and would like to go to college and have a career one day, but is pessimistic about the status of the economy. Pointing to her son, she said, “I want to see him go to college. So I really hope things brighten up or everyone’s in for it.”

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