With her 5-week-old baby asleep face-down across her lap, Erica Richardson settled into a chair at the Union Rescue Mission and reviewed her strategies for staying sane while living with an infant in a homeless shelter.
The key is to get away from the shelter during the day, the tired-looking 33-year-old said. Head to the park, to a friend’s house, to any place where she can pretend, for a while anyway, that she is just another mom on an outing.
And, she added, placing a hand protectively on the sleeping form of her son Lonnie, “I just pray every day.”
A homeless mother sitting next to her -- who was also juggling an infant on her lap as well as tending to a 2-year-old in a stroller -- nodded vigorously. “I was getting ready to say the same thing,” said Cheirre Copeland. Then she leaned forward to offer some survival tricks of her own.
The economic crisis and cold weather have created a larger than usual influx of families to shelters in Los Angeles County this year, according to shelter officials and other service providers.
On Wednesday, officials at the Union Rescue Mission, which runs the county’s cold-weather shelters, held an emergency meeting to figure out what to do when they run out of hotel vouchers for families, which could happen this month. The numbers, said Chief Executive Andy Bales, are sobering: The region’s winter shelters and the skid row mission have seen 86 families in the last three weeks.
By comparison, last year the agency took in 20 families at its emergency shelters over the entire cold weather season from Dec. 1 to March 15, with 15 to 20 more at its downtown mission. Two weeks ago, the mission downtown opened up its fifth floor to two-parent families and single fathers with children, something it has never had to do before. It may also convert its chapel to sleeping quarters.
“This is, as far as I am concerned, a disaster of Katrina-esque proportions,” said Tanya Tull, chief executive of the nonprofit Beyond Shelter. A variety of negative economic forces are contributing, she said, from job losses to an uptick in foreclosures.
The signs, Tull said, are everywhere: from the father who pretends to work through the night at a computer at a 24-hour office supply center so his child can sleep safe and warm in a stroller to the mother who takes a baby to the emergency room at 11 p.m., knowing the odds are they won’t be called until morning and can pass the night in the waiting room.
Even in good times, Los Angeles County -- the most populous in the nation -- has more homeless people than any other metropolitan region in the country. According to a count taken almost two years ago, before the recession began, there were 73,000 people without homes on any given night.
Officials at the county Homeless Services Authority estimate that nearly a quarter of the homeless are parents and their children.
The first choice for many families is a motel room. Government and social services agencies routinely provide families with room vouchers -- but those are growing scarce this year, according to Bales and others.
Carmelita Robertson, for example, lived in a motel room for weeks with her 2-year-old daughter, Jaira. But after she ran out of vouchers, she wound up sharing a room with three other single mothers on the fourth floor of the Union Rescue Mission.
She said she was grateful for being able to move up from an open cot to a private, tented one this week, where she and her daughter have a little privacy at night.
On a recent night, as Jaira scrambled across her cot holding a snow globe that played Christmas carols, Robertson described her descent into homelessness. She said she was working as a housekeeper at a Long Beach hotel and making the rent on a studio apartment -- but because of the economy, her hours kept getting cut.
Last spring, she moved to Virginia to save money by staying with her mother, but they clashed and she came back to Los Angeles in July. She couldn’t find work, and wound up on the street.
She’s been at the mission since late November. She takes buses across town each day, putting her daughter in day care in South Los Angeles, then heading north for classes to become a medical technician, then reversing her route back to the mission.
Having her daughter with her, she said, keeps her focused on improving her situation.
“Even though we are homeless, we have to stabilize. Keep clothes. Keep diapers. When you have kids, you have to. . . . That’s what keeps most women down here pushing, the fact that we have children.”
The mothers also help one another. Many have cellphones, and they exchange numbers and call one another when they find out about free toys, diapers or other opportunities.
Copeland, a shelter occupant who is 22 and pregnant with her third child, offered more thoughts on how to survive the street.
Make sure you have some kind of activity every day, she said. If you have to go to the pediatrician, a social services center or the housing office, don’t do it all in one day -- instead, stretch it out over three, leaving fewer empty days.
And no matter what, make sure your cellphone is charged so people can reach you with good tips on food or clothes or just a diverting piece of gossip.
Richardson nodded. She has been homeless since July, when she was five months’ pregnant. She had been living with her son’s father in an apartment in South Los Angeles, but he went to jail, leaving her without a way to pay the rent.
Her son was born while she was homeless, she said, and she is glad he is too young to understand what is happening.