We’ve reported on homelessness, but what about families who are on the brink? For some of them, finding stable housing is a way to move their lives forward after drug rehabilitation, or court-mandated separation from their kids. With recent approval to relocate, one Fresno County program is trying to make it easier for those families to find housing.
Before they can take that step, though, many of those families go through juvenile dependency court, where they meet Judge Brian Arax. As a judge in that space, Arax says he sees the worst and best of humanity.
“So, in child welfare, if you're a participant, whether a judge or attorney, social worker or other, you get to see the full panoply of the human condition and experience,” says Arax.
The families Arax sees are often there because of child protective services claims, like neglect. He says a lot of those cases are the effects of drug abuse and addiction. If the child’s safety is at risk, they may be separated from their parents for a time, and placed with other family or in foster-care.
“The judge’s role is to come in at certain specific points in time to make key decisions,” says Arax. “So there's the first removal of the child, which is always gut wrenching and agonizing, to, hopefully -- and in a good number of cases -- a reunification.”
Arax says that being reunified, though, is just the beginning.
“So when you do that, you have to put your life back together, piece by piece by piece. Do you have to get your credit history back? A driver's license? Work on a job,” Arax says. “And housing is huge.”
To fill that housing piece, Fresno County offers some families temporary, transitional housing, or emergency housing. The location itself is an apartment complex called, “El Puente” -- Spanish for “the bridge.”
“It's kind of bridging from homelessness to stability,” says Tricia Gonzalez, deputy director of child welfare for Fresno County.
Gonzalez says that not every family they work with has gone through the child welfare system, or was separated from their kids, but all of them suffer from housing instability.
“What that means is that we have families that have either unstable housing or they're coming out of the program, or they're coming out of homelessness,” says Gonzalez. “They need that stability to care for their children.”
El Puente is a place for families to save up for and transition to a permanent space, like their own house or apartment. Families stay for free for about three months, but sometimes extensions are granted based on need.
Right now, El Puente is going through a transition, too. The county is working with the Fresno Housing Authority to relocate the program from southeast Fresno to southwest Fresno. The relocation was approved by the County Board of Supervisors just last week. Gonzalez says the new space is definitely an improvement.
“We have additional units. We went from 32 to 46, which means that we can serve more families,” Gonzalez says. “Our previous units were only two bedrooms. Now these have, some of them, up to four and five bedrooms, which means we can serve larger families.”
Gonzalez says the complex is often full. It’s the same one they’ve used since the program began in 1974. In the last year, El Puente housed over three hundred families.
Maria Mendoza is a social worker with the county. She sometimes refers families to El Puente, because, otherwise, they have limited options.
“Most shelters in Fresno are constantly full, waitlisted, and there's a huge need for housing,” says Mendoza. “And also the cost of being able to financially just pay for a place to stay is really difficult. So a lot of them experience unstable housing or they have been homeless at one point.”
She says that with El Puente often at full capacity, she’s had to ask shelters outside the county for help. A building with more units will help her assist more families. She adds that the old facility could also have used some work.
“The building is older, everything is outdated,” Mendoza says. “So I think the new facility will be exciting.”
Mendoza says the families she works with are looking forward to the new facility. For them, this is the start to finding stability. The county plans to begin moving into the new building this week, and will continue to do so through August.