Women and Children First … or Every Man for Himself?

Don’t Wait Until We Break!

On Wednesday May 4, homeless and formerly homeless moms, children, and individuals converged on San Francisco’s City Hall to deliver one message, loud and clear: “Our mothers need housing.” The action was designed and carried out by unhoused members, mostly moms.  In planning the action, they talked about how being homeless is literally breaking their mental health and came up with the slogan “Don’t Wait Until We Break”

Age-old sayings tell us to save “mothers and children first” in any crisis or catastrophe. This is not some patriarchal old wives’ tale, but rather a survival strategy for the human race as a whole. It’s not that men can save their own or that women need more protection, it’s about keeping our human lineage and the realization that primarily women, or moms, have done the job of childrearing and all that goes with it. Without them, we would be lost as a society and likely would not survive. 

Our so-called “progressive” city of San Francisco would like for you to believe that family homelessness is rare and not an issue. However this is not the case, as there is at least one unhoused student in every San Francisco classroom with more than 20 students. Families experiencing homelessness are largely invisibilized because of the unique risks they face: homeless families, if found, fear facing Child Protective Services involvement, which can lead to the traumatic removal and separation of children from their families. All to say, families know how to hide. Families here rely on the informal support of their families and friends to make it by, but it’s not always an ideal situation. Sometimes this means staying indoors in the only available space, maybe with an abusive partner, or a family member who might be engaging in child-inappropriate activities, like using or selling hard drugs at home. Our city does not pour adequate resources into solving family homelessness. Our politicians and elected officials often focus on who is most visible to tourists or others spending money in the city. This means the incarceration of homeless folks with no other place to go, or conservatorship for people with mental health and substance use issues. This is one reason why Proposition C: Our City Our Home is so important, as it earmarks 25% of all Proposition C-funded housing for homeless families.

Like most local governments in the United States, San Francisco holds an austerity position on our budget. Although we have a budget of around $13 billion, less than 5% goes to the No. 1 issue in San Francisco: homelessness. Our wealthy city touts solutions to homelessness, where “A Place for All ” is nothing but a holding cell or concentration camp for poor people. To poor people on the ground, waiting for a home, desperately calling the Homeless Outreach Team and leaving voicemails, showing up to Espiscopal Community Services’ office at 123 10th Street to endure a grueling vulnerability assessment, which ultimately often ends up with no housing or sense of permanency in the city that was once theirs. This is often felt as a process in which every man must save himself because there are not enough resources or placements for people. And they’re not wrong. In the United States, we see a scarcity of resources for our most vulnerable people – our seniors, our children, our single moms, our folks with disabilities, our immigrants, our gender-noncomforming siblings, our folks engaging in clandestine work to survive. For mothers, they must go through a vulnerability assessment even to get shelter, and rarely is there any housing to offer, and when there is, it is a short two year rental subsidy.  At the same time, we are seeing increases in tax breaks and profits for corporations and individual millionaires and billionaires. To our folks on the street, some who are waiting years, or even decades, for a place to call their own, this is not just a decision arrived at after a series of tedious City budget meetings, this is a matter of life or death. 

When Coalition on Homelessness members embarked on the journey to City Hall to hold a rally in honor of our homeless moms, we lobbied the supervisors’ offices like there are lives on the line, because there indeed are. For so many families who are scraping by and for so many more who are surviving the best they can, we shouted this year’s Mother’s Day slogan, “Don’t Wait Until We Break!” – a plea to our City supervisors and mayor to fund housing for our families because as sailors facing a shipwreck tell us, save mothers and children first. They will carry us on to uplift the next generation. They will carry us to a time where no one is without a home.