If you have no other choice than to leave your home, or your host’s home- & you don’t have anywhere to live that is safe, stable & permanent, then you are considered homeless. Transitioning into homelessness can be quite frightening & unsettling, but there are services that can provide immediate resources, short-term assistance, & help you with your long term goals. This section will list resources that can help you with emergency housing in the San Francisco / Bay Area, as well as tips that you can put into use anywhere. But first-
1) Downsize:When my family & I were admitted into an emergency shelter, we were told that we could only have the placement if we arrived within an hour; and that we could only bring one large garbage bag of belongings per person. Since we didn’t know this would be the case, & we hadn’t prepared in advance by finding somewhere to store the majority of our things, we wound up having to leave a lot of our belongings in the car overnight. But it’s SF, so of course the car was bipped & the bags were stolen. Learn from our mistake; before you become homeless, secure yourself a storage space for your belongings- either in the home of someone you trust, or save up & rent yourself a small month-to month storage space. Make sure that when you do step into homelessness, you don’t bring more with you than you can carry. Bring only what you need, so that you don’t have to choose between having a place to stay & keeping your possessions. Perhaps you have no control over being housed but with careful planning, you do have control over holding on to your precious things.
Step 1: Gather Important Documents:In order to move into any kind of shelter (emergency or otherwise), you will need to prove your identity, & the identity of your children. In the Homelessness doesn’t usually happen out of nowhere. Typically- unless you are fleeing for your safety- you have had time to prepare. Many people fall into the trap of not wanting to face the inevitable; of hoping for a miracle. They don’t want to acknowledge the reality of impending homelessness, & therefore the process becomes much more difficult than it has to be. Be wise & take care of a few important things while you have some sort of housing. With your school age children, you might also need proof that they are enrolled in school. If you are pregnant, you might also need proof of pregnancy.
Make sure you have these original documents:
An official government ID (state ID, DL, passport)
your birth certificate;
your kids’ birth certificates;
your social security card;
your kids’ social security cards;
doctor’s proof of live pregnancy;
proof of your children being enrolled in the current school year
These documents should be neat, available & accessible for whenever you enter a shelter. If you don’t have the original documents, you will have to contact the appropriate government agencies to get them. You’ll want to do this as soon as possible, since processing can take up to three weeks, depending on where & how you order. The documents will also need to be mailed to your address, so send off for the documents while you have an address. Don't wait!
2) You can't take it with you:Many shelters- even those that offer a continuous 14 day or more stay- will likely require you to leave during the day, from anywhere between 3-6 hours. There are some shelters that allow you to leave your things behind; other shelters require that you take everything with you since a return spot is not guaranteed. Therefore you need to pack light, so that moving during the day doesn’t feel unnecessarily stressful. Get a backpack for each member of your family to be filled with household items. Each pack should have:
Two to three pairs of comfy pants
Four or five shirts
Five changes of clean underwear / diapers / wipes
Two sets of sleepwear (long sleeves / long pants)
Spare jacket/ hoodie
Six pairs of socks
Towel / washcloth / soap
Toothbrush / toothpaste
Small toys / books /family paperwork
Disinfectant wipes / hand sanitizer
Finding Shelter in San Francisco
If you are in the city of San Francisco & you are struggling with keeping your housing, or you are living in an unstable situation & you need immediate help planning your next steps; if you need resources because you feel you & your children will be facing homelessness soon, someone can help you. Click below to get services from what the city calls an “Access Point.” An “Access Point,” is a place where you can get the help you need. There are three “access points,” or walk-in locations in San Francisco. They are listed on the website below. If you are unable to make it to any of those locations during the days & times available, there is also a number to call so that they will send someone to wherever you are.
If you are in the city of San Francisco & you are pregnant, and/or you & your children need somewhere to sleeptonight, or for the foreseeable future, click the link below marked '14=Day Shelter. There are different options depending on your family situation, each offering a 2-week stay, & resources for stability beyond 14 days, including a special stay-over program for parents with students enrolled in one of the SF K-12 Public Schools. Call the numbers listed the websites below right away.
If you are in the city of San Francisco, & you aren’t able to find a 14-day emergency shelter using the links & numbers above, there are a couple of alternative options for places to stay overnight. There are two church operated shelters in SF. Both are for overnight stays only, but they also provide dinner & breakfast. Read the instructions carefully for each shelter; the hotlines are only open during specific hours for placement. If you are outside the city of San Francisco but still in Alameda County, & you are in need of shelter for yourself & your children, click the link below for resources in Oakland & other cities in the Bay Area. Please note, this is not the best option for emergency shelter. If you need emergency shelter, it might be best to make your way to San Francisco & use the resources there.
As I stated before, my family & I lived in two different shelters. One was a public, temporary shelter for mothers & children; the other was a residential shelter with private rooms that offered a three month stay. Despite the difference in accommodation, they had similar rules & procedures. Here is a list of what you can expect:
Interview & Documentation: Someone will take you aside to ask the details of your housing & family situation. They will need you to fill out paperwork, & they will need you to provide some type of documentation that proves your identity & the identity of your children. They will also want to verify that you or your children do not have any highly communicable diseases like tuberculosis (TB). If you don’t have a recent negative TB test, the shelter will direct you to a free clinic where you can test as soon as possible.
Storage: You will be given a space to store your things. This will likely be a small space; depending on the shelter, a lock may or may not be provided. Ultimately, it will be up to you to secure & protect your own belongings. This is why downsizing beforehand is crucial; you don’t want to have to worry about protecting anything valuable except yourself & your babies.
Bathrooms: Unless you are very lucky, you will have to use a community bathroom shared by many others. Of course the shelter staff will do their best to keep this area clean, but it will be up to you to protect yourself & your family from germs & bodily waste. Keep a small disinfectant spray and/ or wipes on hand, so that you can spot clean any area you or your children must use.
Sleeping:Sleeping accommodations can vary depending on the shelter. Some shelters have bunk beds & provide blankets; others can only offer a sleeping mat. Make sure you & your children dress warmly for sleep, & that your arms & legs are covered. The lights will be turned off between 9 - 10pm. Make sure that your kids are tired out & able to be settled & quiet for community rest. Once you are used to the shelter’s schedule, it will be easier to create a nighttime routine.
Meals: Most shelters provide breakfast & dinner; some offer lunch as well. This might not be the most delicious food, but it will be nutritious & you are expected to eat. Typically, outside meals are discouraged; however it would be wise to pack small, inconspicuous snacks for yourself & your children to be eaten outside of mealtimes. Don’t leave any trash or crumbs behind; always clean up behind yourself.
Rules & Curfew:Shelters typically have a few important rules that must be followed, typically involving a ban on smoking & drug use. It’s important to follow whatever rules the shelter has, so that you don’t jeopardize a place to sleep for you & your children. There will likely be a curfew, as well as a procedure for signing in & out. These rules can feel restrictive at first, but please keep in mind they are in place to protect you & the other residents, not to annoy you.
Families: Homelessness is nerve wracking & scary, especially when you have children. You are not alone. The shelter will be filled with stressed out women & adorable kids who deserve a home, just like you & yours. Be kind & considerate.
Getting Benefits for You & Your Family
If you & your family are at risk of becoming homeless, or are entering homelessness, there are several benefits you can apply for to help you get back on your feet. Some shelters have social workers who will assess exactly which services you need & help guide you in the right direction, but not all of them do. Below is a list of resources & tips to help you get food, cash, childcare, prenatal care, health & dental care, job training & education, as well as housing leads. 1.) Get Proof of Homelessness: Once you have slept overnight in a shelter, you are officially considered homeless. This means there are more services & benefits available to you than when you weren’t homeless. To take advantage of those services & benefits, you will need proof of homelessness. If there are social workers at your shelter, you can ask one of them to provide you with a written certification of homelessness. If there are no social workers, you will have to ask someone else. If they can’t help, ask them if they know who can. If all else fails, write your own statement explaining how long you’ve been homeless, & the places you & your children have slept recently. Sign & date the paper. 2. Apply For Benefits in San Francisco: There are several cities in the Bay Area that provide social services, such as SNAP (food), CALWORKS (cash), MEDI-CAL (prenatal & health care) etc.; however the amount of money you will receive & the quality of the resources & services available depends on the cost of food & living where you apply, as well as the preparedness of the city to help the homeless, i.e. funding, programs & shelters. In my experience, since the cost of living is the highest in SF & there is also a huge population of homeless people, their CALWORKS (cash) allowance is higher than other cities (because the cost of living is higher), their SNAP (food) allowance is higher (because the cost of food is higher), & there are more health & dental clinics to choose from.
As long as you’ve spent a night in a shelter in San Francisco & you can prove it, or you’ve slept outside or in your car, you are eligible for services. If you found your shelter through one of SF’s Access points, then you’ve likely already been enrolled in these services. However if you’re having to figure this out on your own, you’ll want to contact San Francisco’s Human Services Agency. This will obviously be more complicated if you already have a case with the Human Services Agency from another county. However if you are truly homeless & building a life from the ground up, it's worth it to transfer your case to San Francisco & take full advantage of the resources they offer for you & your children. You can walk into the location at 77 Otis Street in San Francisco; (you can also call and/or apply online) & ask for the services you need. Click the link below for their website, with hours, phone number & location.
3.) Alert A Caseworker in SF About Your Homelessness EVEN IF You Already Have SNAP, MEDI-CAL, etc.: Even if you already have a case with Human Services for food or medical benefits, either in San Francisco or elsewhere in the Bay Area, it's important to officially alert a caseworker of the change in your housing status. I reiterate, if you must go to a shelter, go to a shelter in San Francisco. Consider having your case transferred there. Once a SF case worker knows you are homeless, you could qualify for:
Increased SNAP benefits, including the ability to use EBT for hot food at certain fast food restaurants
Increased cash / emergency cash
Access to parenting classes, childcare, free diapers & other baby supplies
Notification of housing opportunities
Taking a Bus Back to Your Hometown:
If you are ready to leave the San Francisco Bay Area & wish to return to your hometown, or perhaps think it would be easier to survive near family & friends in another state, there is a program that can help. The Homebound Bus Ticket Program provides those in need with a one-way bus ticket home. The program is only offered through one of San Francisco’s “Access Points,” or the Human Services Agency. Ask your caseworker about it.
Tips & Tricks for Living in Shelters:
With the right mindset, living in the shelter can be a good time to gather resources & establish a sense of security for yourself & your children. Below are a few tips I’ve learned from experience:
Eat the food provided: Like I mentioned before, shelter food isn’t the most delicious (although they try), but it is nutritious. It is also free. This means that regardless of how good it tastes, it allows you to save your money. Take advantage of this. Except for special treats every now & again, do not waste your money on food when you are being given free food. Save your money.
Get a local government ID (for free!):If you are staying in a San Francisco shelter, & you don’t have a California ID with a San Francisco address, take the opportunity to get yourself a local ID. You might also be able to use the address at your local HSA office. Ask your caseworker. An official person who can vouch for your homelessness will need to fill out a “No Fee Identification Card Eligibility Verification” form for you, so that you won’t have to pay for an ID at the DMV. There are lots of benefits to having an ID with a San Francisco address, including free access to museums & special attractions & city-wide events. There are also certain employment & educational opportunities that are only offered to San Francisco residents.
Get a bank checking account with a debit card (for hotels, etc.!): Once you begin receiving cash assistance, the money will be deposited to your EBT card, or some other restricted card. This will be good for buying certain items, but it will not allow you to pay for important non-tangible goods & services, like a hotel stay, or a Lyft. If you don’t already have one, use a portion of your cash benefits to open a traditional bank account & debit card. While dealing with homelessness, it's important to have as many legitimate resources as possible. If you can’t be stable, at least you can feel secure. Security means that if a problem arises, you can take care of it. If you don’t know how to open a bank account, ask your case manager to help you. If they can’t help, just go to the bank & tell them you’d like to open a checking account. They can talk you through it.
Get a free phone with service. The government offers free cell phones with unlimited data to everyone who has SNAP, or CALWORKS or MEDI-CAL. Once you have a case with the Human Services Agency, you’ll immediately qualify for a phone. You’ll see reps standing in small tents outside the HSA office, & in other places in and around the Bay Area. If paying your phone bill has been an issue, get a free phone to save money. Every bit helps.
Accept all the resources your programs have to offer.Once you’re registered for homelessness, you’ll qualify for more benefits & opportunities than I can list here. Keep your eyes open for fliers with housing info, classes, events & giveaways, which will be posted around your shelter & around the HSA offices. Before you buy anything- from school supplies, to winter coats, to shoes, to diapers, to baby clothes, to clothes for a job interview- check with a case manager assigned through your “Access Point,” or shelter, or Human Services Agency. There are always resources you won’t be aware of unless you ask and/ or pay attention.
Get out & explore. Just because you are homeless does not mean your life has to be miserable. In fact, you deserve to have fun simply because your life might be feeling miserable right now. At least once a week, try to go do something fun (& free!) with your kids. San Francisco offers so many free & fun things to do. Museums, festivals, concerts, parks- there is always something to look forward to. If you’re in San Francisco, you have access to a world class city that has invested millions of dollars in making sure folks have a good time. That includes you & your babies! Check out section 5 of this booklet for resources & tips for scheduling your calendar with fun (& free!) things to do.
Be on time.Most shelters have a tight schedule, with mandatory meetings & mealtimes. This can feel constricting & frustrating. You might be tempted to ignore the rules. Don’t do it! Do not take your shelter for granted. Remember what’s important. Be responsible for the sake of yourself & your kids (even if you don’t feel like it). This too shall pass.
Remember Where You Are.It is human nature to try to turn wherever we sleep into a home, & to turn the people near us into loved ones. However, just like a soldier at war must remind himself he is at war - even during peaceful moments- so must you remind yourself that you are homeless, even during your comfortable moments. You must remember that the shelter is not home. Your case managers, & other people staying at the shelter are not your friends & family. No one owes you anything. You don’t owe anyone anything. Everything is appreciated but nothing is owed. In this way, you will not take anything for granted, you won’t over extend yourself, & you won’t complain about what you’ve been given or develop certain expectations. Keeping yourself reminded of the facts will motivate you to work as hard as you can to get you & your kids back home.
Respect the Privacy & Space of Others. Family shelters are, for the most part, open spaces. You will hear all sorts of things- people’s phone conversations, heated discussions between couples, mom’s fussing at their kids, perhaps even folks talking to themselves. Due to the lack of privacy, you might be tempted to stare or eavesdrop, but it's best to mind your business & encourage your kids to do the same.
Enroll Your Kids In School
When I was homeless, one thing I worried about was enrolling my kids in school. I kept them out of school longer than I should have. That’s because I didn’t know about the McKinney-Vento Act in California. It’s a federal law that allows homeless kids to go school, get free lunch & participate in all school programs, no matter what. They also waive the usual requirements for enrollment, like birth certificate / guardianship papers; immunizations, proof of physical address & school records. Click the link below to view more information.