Steve, Tori and the Western Addition: raising children without a stable bed

This is one in a series of articles, running between Thanksgiving and January, examining the relationship between housing loss and death in San Francisco. Check out the previous articles in the series, Looking for death, Gunpowder on the streets, and Will losing your home kill you?, Hidden in plain sight: dying and homelessness, and Be selfish: Give a gift to a homeless person and The Tenderloin: substance abuse and Nate, Starving in the Financial District: Ken and food insecurity, and The Sixth and Mission Death Corridor: Assaults, brain trauma and homicide.

If you’re like me, you probably like to tell yourself that we don’t actually need to read Oliver Twist to know that it’s bad for children to grow up on the street. Especially since Dickens discreetly omitted the worst sexual predations that can happen to a child behind a dumpster. As a developed society, we’re way beyond needing to revisit that lesson, right?

Unfortunately, the knowledge of how bad things can be is not stopping one in ten Bay Area homes from recent threatened foreclosure (up from 1 in 100 only 3 years ago). Nor is it stopping “the estimated growth in homelessness within certain neighborhoods” which “is as high as 25% per year, resulting in about 1% of the total US population experiencing homelessness each year.” Nor is it stopping “one in 839 [San Francisco] housing units are foreclosed upon in the city every month.” Which means that families are our fastest growth segment among those without a roof or a door to lock.

Awareness of the risks to children from not having a stable home also means is that parents who are already desperately trying to juggle the demands of managing a life without an address, or a stable food supply, or often a phone, are also frantically trying to do what’s best for their kids, often under mind-blowingly stressful circumstances. And, as recent data shows, that frantic parental concern is well-founded. Spending any part of your formative years without a home can have long-range health effects of the kind which even Dickens could never imagine.


Steve describes himself as a long-haul truck driver. In his forties, he had no kids, but he “got a woman pregnant” almost 4 years ago while driving through a Midwestern state, then discovered she had a drug problem after his son was born. So Steve’s been a single dad since the baby was “60 days old.” Steve’s own mother is “getting on, she’s got health problems and she fell last week. I got to take care of her and my son.” Besides his mom’s problems, long haul driving is not compatible with single fathering of a toddler. “What’s my son going to do?” Steve asked, “be strapped in a car seat all day?” So Steve felt forced to quit.

But now, ironically, with all his resources depleted and his last job a bust, Steve has spent the past nine months living out of a car with an active 3 year old boy, a life I cannot even begin to imagine. Steve says he has friends who are willing to let his son sleep in their homes, so Steve gets his son settled at one of those places, then leaves to stay awake in the Western Addition until the small dark hours of the night “so I know I won’t get in trouble for sleeping in the car.” Steve sleeps only a few hours a night, then picks his son up early in the morning. Steve talks with easy nonchalance about how his son’s potty training went, while my mind still boggles at the thought of trying to parent a toddler under these circumstances.


Potty-training a toddler is a big deal even when you’re not homeless. But when you’re without a place, it’s a major struggle for many obvious reasons. One reason many people are not aware of, is the fact that neither WIC, nor “food stamps” (now known as CalFresh) can be used to cover the cost of diapers. Diapers, as even a pearl-earringed suburban soccer mom would agree, are expensive. Listening to Tori (who has a tiny visible stash of donated diapers from Help A Mother Out tucked tightly in a pocket) talk about potty training her 2-year-old while rotating between three homes, my mind again struggles with what it must feel like, this time with horror of the all-too-common dilemma of having to choose between food and diapers.


When it comes to single parenting, the rule of thumb is “a happy mom/dad means a happy kid.” But how in God’s name could you keep an even keel? Homelessness, by definition, is an endless churn, a running from place to place, taking buses and filling out forms and keeping appointments for possible jobs or help that often never materializes and waiting forever in lines. Hanging over every action of every day is the awareness, the unspoken threat, that you could lose your kids at the first sign of exposure to an unsafe situation. You are, by definition, under incredibly high stress, parenting in public, without ever having a moment to chill, without ever having a safe place to let go and relax. How do you effectively discipline a kid like this? And what is “normal” for a kid under these circumstances? How could you expect a toddler to wait patiently along with 2,600 other people in line at St. Anthony’s for a rare hot meal? Will a massive melt-down, or a lack of reaction to a meltdown on your part, get your family in trouble?

Both Tori and Steve talk about how “good” their kids are – which is undoubtedly true. However, being too good can be a sign that the kids are feeling the pressure of life in ways that the parents can’t buffer. Both Tori and Steve are the lucky ones – both are getting vital help from Homeless Prenatal Project. But a happy single mom is a happy 2-year-old, and even Tori can’t help admitting to moments, under the skull-splitting stress that must be her life, when she “zones out, my mind worrying about everything, and my daughter notices that I’m not really there.”

Steve admits to losing his cool. Something I personally would think was inevitable for any person living with a 3 year old in car for 7 months. He describes yelling at his son, and how much the classes at Homeless Prenatal Project have helped him learn better ways, and also learn what is developmentally appropriate for his small son. But I can’t help thinking that a home is what would really, truly help.


When we as a society fail to provide a safety net for our children, the damage that we do to them echoes for decades to come. Studies show that children who are exposed to any sort of emotional trauma are more likely, decades later, to be homeless as adults. Children who are even temporarily homeless are more likely to have learning disabilities, and cognitive impairment. Hungry children can’t learn, and children who are raised eating only packaged non-perishable food are likely to have health problems that reverberate for years.

So how many San Francisco children try to sleep, each day, wherever their parents can find a place? For safety reasons alone, when it comes to street life, homeless families with children are deeply committed to staying invisible. Just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

In these days of sweeping disasters, and compassion fatigue, it may be hard to muster up sustained concern for a group who deliberately stays invisible. But children without a home are people whose lives and health and productivity for decades to come may depend on just how much we can become committed to tangibly investing in their futures.

Want to help? Check out the excellent work of the Homeless Prenatal Project (also known as the Family Resource Center). The Homeless Prenatal Program is stabilizing all three of the families covered in this story. AND, for more day-to-day, tangible aid with life’s predictable little deposits, check out Help A Mother Out! You gotta love any organization whose motto is: Give Cheeks A Chance.

Stay tuned for more on The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship series of articles by Doc Gurley on homelessness and mortality. There will be an article every Tuesday – find out who’s dying in your neighborhood, what’s being done about it, and what you can do to help. This article was produced as a project for The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

Doc Gurley is a Harvard Medical School graduate and is a practicing board-certified internist, and the creator of the Memoriam app – the first, and only, app to allow disaster-relief workers to speak for the dead. Tune in to hear Doc Gurley on the Mind and Body Radio Show, KUSF 90.3 fm on Wednesday, 1/5/11 at 7:30-8pm. You can follow Doc Gurley on Facebook. You can get more health posts at, or jump on the Twitter bandwagon and follow Doc Gurley. Also check out Doc Gurley’s joyhabit and iwellth twitter feeds – so you can get topic-specific, effective, affordable tips on how to nurture your joy and grow your personal wellth.

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