April Corrigan never expected it to happen to her. A single mother with two young daughters, she had a good job that paid $22.50 an hour and a nice place to live. Her Silicon Valley-area company, however, had mass layoffs in 2003, and Corrigan, who had worked there for 13 years and climbed the ranks to become a technical writer, was one of the people shown the door.

After she lost her job, she could no longer afford her apartment. She moved in with a relative, sharing a small bedroom with her daughters. Those were the days of the tech bust, so jobs were scarce. As time ticked on, Corrigan, 35, was not only searching for work but looking into area shelters to turn to when she could no longer stay with family. She was living on the edge.

She’s since taken a job that pays half of what she used to earn and has recently moved into an affordable apartment operated by EHC LifeBuilders, the largest provider of emergency shelter and housing for the homeless in California’s Santa Clara County.

Corrigan is making it, but she knows her situation could have turned out very differently. She narrowly averted the fate that befell Gabriel Hernandez and that affects hundreds of thousands of other families in the United States each year.

Hernandez, 28, and his family, which includes his girlfriend and two children ages 8 and 2, stayed in a shelter operated by Family Supportive Housing, Inc., of San Jose, Calif., for two months before moving into an apartment with the organization’s help.

They had become homeless when the family they had been living with decided to move into a smaller place.

Hernandez works in the morning and attends school in the afternoon to learn automotive technology. He takes three buses and commutes two hours each morning and night to do this because it will eventually mean he can get a good job.

His girlfriend works full-time, but it’s still hard to make ends meet. It’s especially hard for families because they have to arrange and pay for childcare and see that the children are in school, Hernandez said.

Across the country in Florida, a 57-year-old mother and wife of a disabled man lost her job when the law firm she worked for dissolved. At the same time, her apartment was converting into a condominium, a change that meant her rent would double.

With no place to go, she started staying in cheap hotels. She lasted less than a week in one place because it was infested with rats. She and her family eventually found emergency shelter in Broward County.

The woman, who asked that her name be withheld, is now working for a homeless coalition as she and her family get their lives back together. “We’re not takers,” she said. “We’re givers.” These families illustrate the increasing number of homeless families in America. They are one of the fastest-growing segments of the homeless population.

“While most people think of single men when they think of homelessness, in reality, families make up 50 percent of the homeless population,” said Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “On the whole, these families are very much like other low-income families, but some crisis—either personal or financial—has caused them to lose their housing.”

An estimated 3.5 million people experience homelessness in a given year in the United States, including about 600,000 families and 1.35 million children.

“Families are the hidden face of homelessness,” said Michele Jackson, executive director of Shelter Network in San Mateo County, Calif., just south of San Francisco, where the median home price is $760,000. Unlike the chronic homeless, families are often not on the streets, explained Jackson. The children will be in school, and the parents may be working, but they are still homeless.

There are 65 families on the waiting list for help from her organization. That’s the most in recent memory. Many of the families that Jackson is seeing are the “working poor,” people who are employed in low-paying service-sector jobs.

The problem isn’t isolated to the high-cost housing markets of California.

There’s not a single rural county or a metropolitan area in the country where a renter with a full-time job that pays the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour can afford even a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent, reported the National Low Income Housing Coalition in its 2005 Out of Reach report.

Requests for emergency shelter by homeless families with children increased in 63 percent of the cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 2005.

Across the 24 survey cities, the average increase in requests for emergency shelter by families was 5 percent, with highs of 25 percent in Denver and Nashville.

In another telling finding, 87 percent of the cities report that the length of time people are homeless has increased. People were remaining homeless for an average of seven months, according to the 2005 mayors’ survey, which was done in cooperation with Sodexho, Inc., a provider of food and facilities management.

More and more cities and counties are committing to ending homelessness. (See story, page 46.) But, it’s a particularly stubborn and thorny problem, especially for families. Some shelters are specifically for individuals and do not take parents with babies or teenagers. In addition, family homelessness is an issue that reaches beyond housing, as it often interferes with kids’ education and development.

A growing crisis

In Santa Clara County, where Corrigan and Hernandez live, about 20,000 people experience homelessness each year. About a quarter of them are under the age of 18, and families make up 41 percent of the homeless, according to EHC LifeBuilders.

In the county, someone making the minimum wage would have to work 148 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment, noted Stephanie Schaaf, public education and advocacy coordinator for EHC. “A large number of the families we see have at least one working parent, yet they’re still ending up on the street,” she said. “Something is very wrong with this picture.”

In Florida’s Broward County, the number of homeless families seeking help has recently increased almost fourfold, according to Laura Hansen, CEO of the Coalition to End Homelessness, which serves the county.

She’s been with the agency for 10 years. “Our waiting list for families has never been over 25,” she said. “That’s still really bad, but we were sort of accustomed to it. In August of 2006, our waiting list went to 80. A few months later, it was a 110.”

An average of 14 percent of the requests for emergency shelter by homeless people overall, and 32 percent of the requests by homeless families alone are estimated to have gone unmet during the past year, according to the 2005 survey by the mayors’ conference.

On the positive side, federal funding for the homeless, which includes programs at six agencies, has been pretty steady in the last few years at about $1.93 billion. Housing advocates, however, point out that homeless and affordable housing programs remain underfunded, including the Sec. 8 voucher program, which provides important rental subsidies.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s budget has dropped 65 percent since 1978, according to the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a coalition of West Coast social justice-based homeless organizations.

The group attributes today’s homelessness and near-homelessness crisis to federal funding trends over the last 25 years in its recent report, Without Housing: Decades of Federal Housing Cutbacks, Massive Homelessness and Policy Failures, released in November.

The root of the problem

Salvador Menjivar is often on the go, visiting the shelters and housing facilities operated by his Hamilton Family Center, the largest provider of services to homeless families in San Francisco. On this November day, he grabbed a sandwich at a deli near his emergency family shelter, explaining that if he doesn’t eat now he won’t eat all day.

When he speaks to different groups about homelessness, he likes to begin with an exercise. He asks audience members to picture a homeless person. The image that usually comes to mind is that of a single man on the corner asking for money.

It’s one of the stereotypes that Menjivar likes to tear down. His facilities sleep about 300 each night, of which roughly 60 percent are children. The other stereotype that he likes to destroy involves the reason for homelessness, especially for families. “It’s an issue of economics,” Menjivar said between bites of his sandwich. “There is a myth that homelessness is an issue of addiction or mental illness. There is a percentage who have those issues, but the fundamental issue is one of economics.”

Menjivar, executive director of Hamilton Family Center, estimates that 80 percent of the families that he sees are homeless because of a hard economic truth. The remaining 20 percent may have mental issues, substance-abuse problems or disabilities.

Housing prices, Menjivar said, have gotten so far out of sync with wages that many working families cannot afford any place to live.

His in-the-trenches view is shared by the mayors. The U.S. Conference of Mayors study cited the lack of affordable housing as the top cause for homelessness, followed by low-paying jobs, mental illness and the lack of mental-health services, substance abuse and the lack of services, domestic violence, unemployment, poverty, and prisoner re-entry.

An ounce of prevention

For years, the noble goal was to provide the best services possible, but many organizations, including Hamilton Family Center, have shifted their thinking to one of ending homelessness. “Why are we waiting on the other side of the fence?” Menjivar said. “Let’s help families before they cross the fence to homelessness.”

Hamilton has responded by launching First Avenues—Housing Solutions for Families, a program that aims to help people before they become homeless. One piece of the program is a revolving loan fund that can help families pay the rent and not get evicted. Another component is rental subsidies to help families get out of shelters as quickly as possible.

“The investment is better,” said Menjivar, explaining that keeping a family in their apartment is less expensive than housing them in a shelter.

First Avenues participants make a commitment to increase their incomes through job training and other programs.

In Los Angeles, Tanya Tull is president and CEO of Beyond Shelter, Inc., a provider and developer of affordable housing.

Family homelessness, she said, is getting worse in the big cities and in some rural areas. Like others, she traces the problem to a dearth of jobs that pay enough for people to live on and the lack of affordable housing. “What you end up with is a lot of low-income families that can’t afford to stay in housing,” she said. “The slightest change in income can cause them to become homeless.” Lately, she is seeing more families living in their cars because emergency shelters for families are full. That tells her that it is taking longer for people to cycle out of the shelters and into permanent housing.

Beyond Shelter has been a pioneer in a “Housing First” approach to ending family homelessness. The strategy calls for getting people into permanent housing as soon as possible. In general, Housing First is built on the premise that families are more responsive to receiving services and support once their permanent housing needs are met. Through Housing First, homeless families are assisted in negotiating leases, overcoming barriers to rental housing (such as bad credit and eviction histories), and accessing rent subsidies. Once in housing, families are assisted in rebuilding their lives. More than 3,300 homeless families have participated in Beyond Shelter’s Housing First program, first implemented in Los Angeles County in 1988, Tull said. Only 10 percent of them have become homeless again after entering the program, research shows.

It is important to note that Housing First for families is different than the model for singles. Tull said her organization does not move families using drugs into their own apartments because the children could be at risk. It does, however, work with families in which the head of the household is in recovery. If the person relapses, Beyond Shelter will connect the person with services and help the family keep its housing. Unlike some of the programs aimed at homeless individuals, Beyond Shelter’s families also have their own leases.

Another Beyond Shelter initiative has been “service-enriched affordable housing.” Tull explained that this is affordable housing for the low-income population at large and not necessarily targeted to at-risk or special-needs populations. The program seeks to increase the accessibility that low-income families have to social services either on-site or by referrals. The goal is to help families attain improved social and/or economic well-being.

Beyond Shelter is also attacking the problem by building housing. The organization’s affiliate, Beyond Shelter Housing Development Corp., has 12 developments with more than 650 units. Ten of them were financed with federal low-income housing tax credits. The group has another five projects in development that will provide another 300 units.

Shelter Network’s Jackson said her group has also adopted a Housing First component to its work by providing families with a security deposit, the first month’s rent, or a shallow subsidy to get them into an apartment as quickly as possible.

About 40 families have taken part in the last year and a half. It’s been promising, Jackson said, noting that most have been able to sustain their housing.

With such strategies, advocates hope that more people like Corrigan and Hernandez will always have a place to call home.