One perception of homeless individuals might be that they’re alone, dealing with substance abuse or mental illness. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes a homeless person has family nearby, and just a strained relationship. We reported on a Fresno County program that helps house parents and children, usually after they’ve been separated by the courts. This week, we meet one parent who used that emergency housing. Her name is Christina Montalvo, and she spent some time on the streets alone, while her kids lived with family.
Today, she shares an apartment in southeast Fresno with her boyfriend, their baby daughter, and her son.
“At first I was like, oh my God, this is such a bad area,” Montalvo says of when they first moved. “But now, we’re here, it’s great. Like, I feel really comfortable. Everyone looks out for each other and it's nothing like where I was before and just always watching out and watching your back. It’s not like that here.”
They’ve lived there for nearly a year, a milestone Montalvo proud of because when she mentions watching her back, she means when she was homeless.
“I was pregnant on the streets, so then, I kind of just felt like I had nowhere to go. I didn't know about any programs or anything,” says Montalvo.
She was addicted to methamphetamines at the time. Her three other children were staying with family members, and she visited them as often as possible. But she says she was really caught up in her addiction.
“I just like I felt like I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to, like I just couldn’t, and I did want to,” says Montalvo. “I remember being in the streets, sitting with my boyfriend like, what’s gonna make me stop. I didn't want to do this no more. I don't.”
Montalvo had heard about Fresno County’s emergency housing program, and with a baby on the way, she was determined to get in. She had been sanctioned from welfare before becoming homeless, and she had to clear that first. The day she did was the day she went into labor.
“I was like, I can't believe it,” says Montalvo. She was taking the bus, when she felt contractions. “I’m looking online for things like to stop contractions. Or I’m like, maybe it's just Braxton Hicks. But I knew, cause I've had three other kids, so I knew what was going on.”
It was in the hospital, after having her baby, that Montalvo enrolled in a program to get clean and start putting her life back together.
Today, the 32-year-old just finished summer school courses at Fresno City College. She’s hoping to transfer to Fresno State soon to finish her degree in business management.
Montalvo is one of thousands of families in the county getting help from the Fresno Housing Authority. She offsets the cost of her rent with a housing voucher.
Preston Prince is the Authority’s CEO.
“We think that for every family that we're able to help there's probably three or four that are economically or income-wise are qualified, but we just don't have the resources to help them,” says Prince.
He adds that there isn’t a “one size fits all” approach for housing people, or even for addressing homelessness. The Housing Authority partners with other service providers to help their residents get social services along with housing. The approach they use is often called “housing first.” They try to get people into a place as quickly as they can. But Prince says that does not mean, “housing only.”
“We're starting to really focus on wellness, which is a little bit harder to define, but that's what we're really looking for,” says Prince. “It isn’t just necessarily that someone's in a house, which is great, but that they are connected. Right? That they have social connections,and human connections, and employment opportunities, and educational opportunities and that they have wellness in their life.”
Often families start their search for resources, including housing, at the Poverello House. Sara Mirhadi is the Chief Programs Officer there. She says the number of families they assist varies day to day, and it’s hard to know exactly how many homeless families are out there. At the same time, assisting families can be different from helping individuals.
“It can be a little more difficult because a family has multiple issues that are sometimes going along,” Mirhadi says. “Also, finding space for them -- homeless individuals sometimes have a little bit easier time finding space. Family shelter here in Fresno is pretty limited for the most part.”
The Fresno Rescue Mission has five separate rooms for homeless families, but they sometimes have to use other space if the rooms are full. The Poverello House itself doesn’t have a facility for families to stay in, but they issue motel vouchers for short term stays. Mirhadi says they do run out of vouchers quickly, at which point they try to find another resource for the families.
This year’s homeless point in time count for Madera and Fresno Counties says that families only make up 12 percent of the total homeless population, and that there are less than 100 homeless families overall. In comparison, Fresno Unified School District has documented more than 1,700 homeless children. But many of those families live doubled up with another family. The point in time count would consider them to be “housed,” even if the living situation isn’t ideal.
Sometimes that approach of staying with another family or a family member can be a temporary fix, something homeless assistance groups call “diversion.” At the same time families continue to try to find their own place.
“I would say that most of, a lot of our families use diversion than individuals,” says Mirhadi. “That’s to properly assess them because resources are so limited, we have to make sure that those limited resources, you have to prioritize.”
But, Mirhadi, like Prince says that housing homeless families and individuals always takes a multilayered approach.
“Nobody has the answer, housing first isn’t the answer. It's part of many answers,” says Mirhadi. “And diversion isn’t the answer, it’s part of the process, the whole thing.”
For Montalvo, who was homeless just two years ago, she’s grateful to have made it this far. She’s hoping that it won’t be long before she can find her own house.