NEWS FEATURE: More Dads With Kids at Homeless Shelters

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

MODESTO, Calif. _ A month ahead of time, Armando Niebla already knew how he’d like to celebrate Father’s Day.

“All I wish is to have just a little apartment for me and my kids,” said Niebla. “I don’t care about a present, car or anything. … Just to have a home, just our own home.”

Niebla, 23, has lived in this small city at California’s center for seven years, but he recently became one of the first to stay in the new facility for homeless single dads at Modesto Union Gospel Mission. On the bunk below him slept his 2-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Roberts, and in a nearby crib, 1-year-old Daniel Roberts.

A decade and a half after opening a shelter for women and children, mission officials saw a crying need for a place that men and their kids could call their temporary home.

“The need is there,” said Barbara Deatherage, administrator of the mission that covers two city blocks not far from downtown, across the street from a check-cashing store and next door to a doughnut shop.

“I expect this trend to grow because the traditional family no longer exists. The stay-at-home mom and the dad who goes to work … they are the minority and as regular society goes, so go the homeless.”

Officials at the International Union of Gospel Missions, with which the Modesto mission is affiliated, and the Salvation Army attest to the increasing number of men showing up at their doors with children in tow. They say some shelters have transformed their spaces from solely traditional single-sex dormitories to include separate floors or apartments for the latest additions to the homeless population.

“There are more and more men who now get custody of children and they have the same problems that … single mothers have with children,” said Lt. Col. Tom Jones, national community relations and development secretary at the Salvation Army’s headquarters in Alexandria, Va. “How do you work and find a place to stay? What do you do with your children? How do you find day care for them?”

Those are just the questions faced by Curt Smith, 33, a 15-year resident of Stanislaus County who began staying at the mission with his 2-year-old son, Casey, shortly after the studio apartments for homeless single dads opened.

Smith has worked with a construction labor union, but a recent temporary job fell through when Casey’s mother _ from whom he is separated _ failed to show up to take care of her son. Smith had been living with his own mother, but she evicted him after a dispute over ownership of the home, he said as he wiped his son’s face clean with a disposable diaper wipe.

Now Smith is trying to figure out how Casey can be cared for when his number comes up again for a job through the union. The problem: Most of the work begins at 6:30 a.m., but day care centers open after 8 a.m.

“There’s a conflict right there,” worried Smith.

As if all of this is not enough, Smith has yet another challenge: Soon after their arrival at the new shelter, he and his son walked to a nearby fast-food restaurant and little Casey broke his leg on a slide in the restaurant’s playground.

As he talked, Smith kept encouraging his son not to get down from his stroller and to keep playing with his red balloon from the restaurant.

“I don’t want you hurting yourself,” he said to his son, who sported a new cast on his left leg. The small bike they brought with them to the shelter lay idle in a nearby corner.

The cream-colored stucco building where Smith has slept with Casey opened May 8. Most residents will stay a maximum of 30 days. Mission officials say they have room to expand from the three existing apartments if the need arises.

They anticipate more people will need this kind of help with continuing growth in Modesto, a community of agriculture and canneries whose motto ironically is “Water, wealth, contentment, health.” As housing costs rise in Silicon Valley to the city’s west, more people are moving east and some become homeless.

Nationwide, the International Union of Gospel Missions estimates that 5 percent of the families they served in 1999 were single men with children. In the last decade, the number of evangelical Christian missions affiliated with the union that provide shelters for families has increased, with about 15 percent to 20 percent now able to house men with children.

But the Modesto mission’s separate building for single homeless fathers is rare among shelters.

“What we’re seeing is the larger missions in the larger cities moving to doing it as a separate program and the smaller communities are making it happen by doing what we can do to make it work,” said the Rev. Stephen Burger, executive director of the umbrella organization of rescue missions, based in North Kansas City, Mo.

“This is something that probably none of us planned on,” he said. “It wasn’t our expectation.”

Divorce, prison sentences and other changes in family situations lead to the end of stability and the beginning of homelessness for some single dads.

Niebla, who had broken up with his girlfriend, the children’s mother, had been living with his mother. He ended up homeless because his mother, who is disabled, had to move and no longer has room for him and his kids. The children’s mother also is homeless and Niebla, a diabetic, is currently out of work under doctor’s orders.

As he waits for his public assistance check, Niebla must look for housing without a car and worry about the $25 he needs for a credit check for any place he applies to live with his kids.

“Sometimes I get scared if I don’t have a place to stay, then they’ll take them away from me,” said Niebla, who learned about the shelter from the Salvation Army.

As he talked, Elizabeth, in a blue plaid flowered dress, and Daniel, in T-shirt and black shorts, ran around a courtyard with a Fisher Price basketball net and picnic table. Their double stroller waited outside the apartment door for their next outing.

The alternatives to shelters for men and families are not homey _ temporary space in a motel, doubling up with family and friends, sleeping in a car. In other cases, men are forced to split up from their children and live in different transitional housing.

“That will happen quite often because a lot of shelters are still very much set up to have the female as head of household,” said Sue Watlov Phillips, interim coordinator of the Washington-based Coalition for the Homeless.

At the Modesto mission, executive director Vern Deatherage proudly shows off the new day room where children can watch videos and dads can sit in comfortable chairs. He marvels at how the building has evolved from a “drug house to God’s house,” filled with Gideon Bibles and posters about Jesus instead of needles, spoons and other drug paraphernalia.

“When I came here in 1986 as a volunteer … the very first day I walked up, there was a drug raid in that building,” he recalled.

Now he hopes it will help nurture new lives rather than old habits.

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“I had that prejudgment and I think people do that _ to prejudge homeless men with children, thinking there’s something desperately wrong with them and that’s not true,” said Vern Deatherage. “I want you to notice that both men here _ neither one of them has a drug or alcohol problem.”

Once the building was renovated, there were other challenges unique to housing men with kids.

Men who were going to be around the facility all day needed to be kept in secure facilities away from women with kids in a neighboring building, so the mission installed coded entry doors that can be recoded every time a new person needs to be sheltered. A chaplain provides daily devotionals for the men and their families since it might be difficult to bring children into the mission’s daily chapel sessions.

Yet, mission officials say, the men have many of the same wants and needs as single homeless mothers.

“I thought maybe it might be a little bit different for the men, but they’ve all cried and all stated their concern for not being able to find a job,” said the Rev. Mary Garber, a chaplain at the mission whose newest duty is to check in the men who arrive with children.

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At a recent lunchtime, Niebla and Smith sat with their kids at the same table in the mission’s cafeteria. Niebla’s kids sat on each side of their dad, eating their lunch of pork fried rice, fruit and cake along with other shelter residents and employees. Just down the table, Smith fed Casey, seated in his stroller.

As the families departed _ Niebla holding each of his kids’ hands, Smith pushing Casey’s stroller _ Barbara Deatherage watched them, hopeful for brighter days ahead.

“You can tell that they love their dads and their dads love them,” she said.

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