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On the Move: One Hardworking Family's Struggle to Escape Homelessness

Mar 8 2018 - 8:45am

Victoria Ortiz still remembers a tall white boy she went to school with in the third grade, nearly two decades ago, at John Swett Alternative Elementary School, which she and many kids from the Tenderloin attended. His name was Vincent, and he was homeless.

“I think about him a lot now,” said Ortiz, as she pushed her 2-year-old son, Jason Jr., or JJ, in a stroller along Mission Street. “People would make fun of him because he didn’t have things like all the other kids. He was a good kid. It makes me sad, because now my son’s in that situation too.”

Ortiz, 27, was born in the Tenderloin and spent most of her childhood moving with her mother, four brothers and father, when he was around, from one San Francisco neighborhood to another — Hunters Point, the Mission, the Fillmore, the Tenderloin. Today, after two years of living and working in the East Bay, Ortiz is staying with her son and his father — along with 43 others — at the Hamilton Families shelter on Golden Gate Avenue and trying desperately to navigate the city’s rapidly changing system for helping homeless families.

“I’ve worked since I was 16 years old. I know how to work for my money. I’m not saying I want the government to pay for my living. But right now I’m in a position where I do need help.” 

— Victoria Ortiz

By the latest official count, she is one of 3,406 parents and minor children in San Francisco who are without their own housing in a city where the median monthly rent of a one-bedroom apartment is over $3,000. Since Ortiz left her job as a customer service associate for Staples a year ago to care for JJ, the family is living on half that amount — the take-home pay of her partner, Jason.

Ortiz said she isn’t looking for long-term handouts. “I’ve worked since I was 16 years old,” she said. “I know how to work for my money. I’m not saying I want the government to pay for my living. But right now I’m in a position where I do need help.”

Moving From Place to Place

The family’s path to homelessness began more than two years ago when Ortiz was 7 months pregnant. She had moved to the East Bay, was working at a Staples store in El Cerrito, and paying rent to a housemate in El Sobrante. Unbeknown to her, the roommate stopped paying rent, and the whole household was evicted.

They crashed with a friend in San Pablo, then stayed a year with Ortiz’s mother in her small subsidized apartment in a Tenderloin housing complex, until family tensions grew too great. They then roamed some more, couch-surfing at the homes of friends or staying in a friend’s RV parked near San Francisco General Hospital.

On a few occasions, they’ve had to sleep in their car, a 2001 Honda. Ortiz said she tries to avoid that option because “if the police drive by and see us in the car, they’re going to come question us and possibly take my son away.”

The RV provided more privacy, but also plenty of drawbacks — no running water, toilet or refrigerator. And because they don’t want to be seen going in or out of the RV, Ortiz said, “we have to wait until it’s super-late to go in, and then leave super-early so people don’t call the police on us.”

For five weeks during the summer, they stayed at a cheap motel in Vallejo. Ortiz spent much of her time calling Hamilton Families, operator of a Tenderloin family shelter, and setting daily alarms to remind her to call precisely at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. to check on availability.

“I’d call, hang up and call again — pretty much like how you would call a radio station to win tickets,” she said. “And they're like, 'No, there's no beds.’”

She also visited Compass Family Services, the San Francisco agency designated as the hub for coordinating services for homeless families. Staff there told her that because her family had a place to live — the Vallejo motel — they weren't considered a top priority for shelter, compared with other families who were living on the streets or sleeping in cars.

Life at the Hamilton Shelter

When they ran out of money, they left the Vallejo motel and moved back to their friend’s RV. Finally, they got into the Hamilton Families shelter on Golden Gate Avenue. Like all families, they were allowed to stay for 60 days, but then had to leave — with the chance to return in a week by calling in again. On their way out, they were given hotel vouchers worth $65 a night.

“Where are you supposed to stay for $65 a night in San Francisco?” Ortiz asked incredulously.

They spent the next four nights in their friend’s RV, then used a week’s worth of vouchers to pay for a hotel room for three nights. When the week ended, they got another 60 days at Hamilton, where they remain.

For Ortiz and her family, life is constant motion and tension. Jason leaves the shelter at 5:45 a.m. to catch the bus to his job at Golden Gate Park by 6:30. Ortiz wakes JJ up, then pushes him almost a mile to a block in the Western Addition neighborhood where there are no parking meters and she can park her car each night. It’s next to a city park, giving JJ a chance to play.

She spends much of her time going to an endless series of appointments with case managers and social workers and filling out applications for housing. Every afternoon, she picks Jason up from his job.

Finding a bathroom is another complication that forces Ortiz to plan her days and routes with precision. She and JJ may go to McDonald’s or Starbucks and buy something cheap so they can use the toilet. If they go to the Mission District, they can stop at the U-Haul center on Bryant Street, where they store their belongings.

‘Extremely Stresful’ Times

One morning Ortiz had to carry JJ because the stroller was broken. That aggravated her back pain, which was caused by a recent car accident. “Being a homeless mom with a child is extremely stressful,” she said.

She said she was working harder to keep her family afloat than she did during the five years she worked at Staples stores in El Cerrito and San Francisco, pulling 12-hour shifts until three weeks before JJ was born. She went back to work three months later when her maternity leave ended, but found the separation from her son unbearable.

“I’d work all these hours, and when I’d come home he was sleeping,” she said. “I was feeling depressed, like a bad mom because I wasn’t there for my son.”

Jason, who watched him while Ortiz worked, offered to find a job so she could stay home with JJ. He landed a minimum-wage maintenance position with the city’s Recreation and Park Department. It provides health benefits for the family, and after six months he’ll get a raise, Ortiz said.

But landing the job also cost them. The family had been getting $800 a month from CalWORKs, the state welfare program, but Jason’s take-home pay of $1,500 made them ineligible and the grant ended.

Monthly expenses are constant worries for Ortiz. Car insurance costs $180, and gas is $200. Their storage unit is $150 and their mobile phones are $80. Add another $80 for diapers and wipes and $75 for laundry, and their monthly budget — not counting food or clothes — comes to $765.

Worries About Effects on Her Son

Because they’re not paying rent, they’re saving a little bit to put toward housing in the future. But the stresses of shelter life take a toll on everyone. Sometimes, Ortiz said, parents yell at or beat their children. Some residents tie up the bathrooms for hours at a time; Ortiz thinks they’re using drugs. “It’s crazy in there,” she said.

Ortiz worries about the effects on her son. He’s 2 years old and not speaking yet, which could signal a stress-related developmental delay. She grew up with an alcoholic father who regularly beat her and her siblings, and is determined to see that the same things don’t happen to her child.

“I’ve seen a 2-year-old girl beaten with a belt — bap, bap, bap — at like 7 in the morning, 10 times,” Ortiz said. “The little girl is crying. And within less than two seconds, the mom is like, ‘I love you, I love you.’ Me personally, I think if you hit a child that hard so they're crying bloody murder and two seconds later you tell them ‘I love you,’ they're going to grow up and be in a domestic-violence relationship.”

She doesn’t intervene with other families because she thinks it won’t be productive, but she recently worked with advocates from the Coalition on Homelessness to express her concerns to the Hamilton staff. They listened, she said, and are making a stronger effort to monitor conditions and the behavior of families.

“They stepped up to the plate,” she said. “Things did change and now people are more calm.”

For now, Ortiz is focusing on getting her family out of the shelter and into housing. But she hasn’t lost sight of her own goals. With all the chaos in her family growing up, she barely completed ninth grade. Now she’s determined to get her GED — she said she passed the first two parts with flying colors — and enroll in community college to develop a career in human services.

“After going through this homeless situation I'm in with my son and his father, I would love to be a case manager to help other families,” she said. “I want to make a difference.”

This article also appears in the spring 2018 print edition of the Public Press, which can be purchased at select local retailers.