Imagine, for a moment, you and your children become homeless. There’s no space at the local family shelter. With no other options, you are forced to sleep in your car or in a tent at a local campsite. Add to that situation a heat wave with temperatures reaching and consistently staying in the 90s for several days. How will you and your family survive the heat? How will you stay cool and hydrated?
On top of managing survival in harsh weather conditions, homeless families face consistent difficulties trying to get their basic needs met. First, think of the quality of sleep parents in crisis get while in their van or in a tent, unsure if where they’ve landed for the night is safe. With a better sense of their level of exhaustion, where would it leave your energy level during the day to address the immediate needs of your family?
Homeless families expend enormous amounts of energy every day trying to take care of basic needs that people who aren’t homeless easily take for granted. How will you stay clean and handle regular sanitary needs? Where can you access water to drink or brush your teeth? Where will you shower? How will you make sure you and your children have adequate food and nutrition?
Beyond meeting basic needs, families experiencing homelessness face challenges externally in the greater world. What will the start of the school year look like for your school-aged children? How will you navigate enrollment processes without a household address? How will you make sure your kids get to school every day and are ready to learn?
Many homeless families choose to not disclose their living status. For some families living in vans, cars or in tents, disclosing their living status presents certain risks. They wish not to “stand out” in society as being homeless, worried that it will invite scorn or judgment from others. Additional challenges include keeping up appearances to maintain employment. Caring for children while homeless presents additional challenges for maintaining their safety and wellbeing. Some parents choose to try and find other family members to assist during the time they are homeless, but this is not always an option. Many families choose to keep their homelessness hidden from certain people out of concern the authorities may find out and take their children away from them.
According to MaineHousing’s annual point-in-time count, which tracks trends for people experiencing homelessness in our state, there was a slight increase in homelessness in general from 2018 to 2019. Of the households counted as homeless on Jan. 22, a third were families with children. Specifically, 448 people who responded to the count were in households with at least one child, 66 more than in 2018, showing an increase in homeless families by 17%. In 2018, Maine agencies served 6,454 unique clients experiencing homelessness, a slight increase of 1% from the prior fiscal year. Roughly 10% of these clients were homeless families.
Tedford Housing has been serving more unsheltered folks in the southern Midcoast area overall. By unsheltered, we mean individuals living in places unfit for human habitation, such as vans, campsites, sidewalks, abandoned buildings and other unsafe situations. Currently, we are serving a notably higher number of families in unsheltered conditions.
Local unsheltered families live in their vehicles at large retail store parking lots, or tent in nearby camp sites with the threat of remaining homeless as cold weather hits. Occasionally, families may find temporary respite in a motel through area churches, but often funds run out and they are forced to return to homelessness.
Tedford Housing operates a family shelter on Federal Street. However, Tedford must turn away roughly 20 families a month due to lack of available space at our shelter. As of July 24, we have already turned away 26 total families in July so far, with 22 of those families calling Tedford Housing for the first time.
Tedford Housing has the capacity to house only six families at a time. Typically, families remain at the shelter for three to six months prior to their exit into permanent housing. Families must wait to obtain widely coveted housing vouchers, due to limited affordable housing in our area. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2019 Out of Reach report, in order to afford a 2-bedroom rental home at Fair Market Rent, a household must earn $19.91/hour in the state of Maine. However, the average renter wage is $11.82 per hour, as the state minimum wage is $11 per hour.
Many factors play a role in the onset and continuation of homelessness. Catastrophe, illness, fleeing domestic violence, divorce and family separation or any similar circumstance can contribute to a family becoming homeless. But family homelessness is not an unsolvable issue. With the right supports and availability of affordable housing resources, families will restore stability to their lives and provide a better opportunity for their children to not just survive, but to succeed and thrive.
Annie Rose is a Denning Fellow and rising senior at Bowdoin College. Giving Voice is a weekly collaboration among four local non-profit service agencies to share information and stories about their work in the community.