California Childcare Cuts Extend Family Homelessness

MENLO PARK, Calif.—Leni Haunga, an immigrant from Tonga, said that without the childcare services she had received at a homeless shelter, her family would not have gotten back on its feet so soon.

But planned state-budget cuts could leave families like the Haungas on the curb with few opportunities to resettle and stabilize their living situations.

Two years ago, a pair of local sheriffs, a bank official and a locksmith awakened Haunga, her husband and six children—ages two to 13—informing them that they had foreclosed on the house the family had been renting for three years.

Although the foreclosure team expressed sympathy, they gave Haunga’s family only eight minutes to pack up and vacate the premises. She had just enough time to roust her children from their beds and grab some personal belongings. In a matter of minutes, her stunned and drowsy family became homeless.

“I didn’t know what to think at the time,” said Haunga. She recalled the family of eight sitting in their pajamas in their car in the driveway. “We have nothing. We don’t have money,” said Leni.

They were roofless and jobless. Only two weeks before their eviction, Haunga’s husband was laid off from a printing company where he had he worked for 11 years.

Homeless-Service Hotline to the Rescue

Luckily, Haunga knew to contact a local homeless-service hotline, which immediately granted the family 14 days of temporary housing in the area. Then they were transferred to the Haven Family House, a transitional housing facility located in Menlo Park, Calif.

As a resident at the transitional housing facility, Haunga was excited to learn that she was qualified for free childcare services at the Haven Child Development Center, located within the housing facility. That freed up the Haungas’ time to seek employment.

Haunga said the free child care she received at the center was key in ending their homelessness. Knowing that two of her youngest children, four-year-old Asiante and two-year-old Joel, were in a safe environment and learning, Haunga was able to find a part-time job during the day as an eldercare worker. Her weekly pay of about $400 was critical to stabilizing their financial situation.

“My husband got hired, but he went back to earning $15 per hour, or about $2,500 a month. We cannot afford to live on that paycheck,” she said.

The Haungas’ combined monthly income of more than $4,000 enabled them to save enough to afford a two-bedroom house in East Palo in about six months.

A Safe Environment

Rose Juarez, site director at the Haven center, said planned cuts on childcare services would result in longer periods of homelessness, because without the support, parents were not able to find jobs, enroll in training, and search for permanent housing.

A safe childcare environment helps lessen the negative mental and physical impacts on children resulting from homelessness, said Juarez. She explained, “When children become homeless, they suffer trauma from the loss of home, sudden move and unpredictability.”

Juarez said the center has a trained mental health interventionist who coaches the staff on how to work with clients. For example, the staff learns the best vocabulary to use in guiding the children to express their feelings. They also learn to create activities to support the children’s social and emotional development.

The center also has an occupational therapist onsite to help students develop physically. Toddlers, especially, often lack the open space necessary for critical physical activities such as crawling.

The center also provides high-quality preschool education to ensure that there is no academic delay because of a child’s homelessness.

However, threatened budget cuts are making it harder for child development centers in California, such as Haven, to survive. Currently, Haven serves 18 children, including 12 preschoolers, six of whom are toddlers. That number varies throughout the year, depending on how long and how many children are staying at the 23-unit housing facility.

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About 55 families enroll in the childcare program each year, with most of them staying three to four months, but that number may be limited if funding is not available.

Laurie Wishard, president of the Peninsula Family Service agency, which oversees the funding for Haven, said the center has an annual budget of $450,000. Of that amount, $160,000 comes from the California Department of Education (CDE); $100,000 from the First 5 San Mateo County Commission, created to nurture children up to age five; and the remainder from Early Head Start funding, foundations and private donations.

Budget Reduction One Quater

However, with the proposed California cuts in education, funding from the state and First 5 will be severely reduced.

Currently, Haven is facing about a quarter reduction from the state’s education department, through a combination of a 15-percent cut on almost all preschool and childcare programs and a 10-percent reduction on daily per capita reimbursements.

“Cutting a quarter of spending means cutting a quarter of capacity to serve low-income children and their working parents,” said Wishard. She went on to say that the demand for child care is higher than ever because of the foreclosure crisis and the recession.

Apart from Haven, Peninsula Family Service operates five other child development centers and 18 family services facilities, providing full day care to about 300 children daily, such as First Step Child Development Center in nearby San Mateo. Those childcare programs are facing similar budget cuts.

Even though San Mateo County is one of wealthiest counties in California, with an annual family median income at $101,737, there are pockets of poverty where people need affordable child care.

According to the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, in 2008, only 34 percent of children in San Mateo County up to age 13 with working parents received licensed child care, compared to 49 percent in San Francisco, where the annual family median income is $87,355. According to the county’s homelessness agency, there are currently over 2,000 homeless people in San Mateo County.

In March, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation AB 99, requiring the state’s First 5 Commission to transfer $1 billion to the state’s children’s health services.

Debbie Armstrong, executive director of First 5 San Mateo County, said the commission would maintain its funding to local programs, including $50,000 for the Haven center, until the end of 2011. But the commission expects to spend the next three to four months strategizing spending for the years 2012 to 2014. Details of the spending plan should be available by the end of September, Armstrong said.

Legal Challenges

Armstrong added that she was glad the governor did not include the $1 billion from First 5 in his May revision of the state budget because AB 99 is subject to litigation. The state wants $950 million of that billion to come out of the counties' First 5 budgets. Several county commissions have challenged the law in court for tapping into local resources.

If AB 99 is not repealed, though, First 5 San Mateo County will need to transfer $15.5 million to the state by the end of June 2012. First 5 funding is generated under Proposition 10, which charges a 50-cent tax on each pack of cigarettes to support local childhood development programs.

“I understand sacrifices needed to be made to fill the state budget gap, but taking local dollars to address statewide issues is unreasonable,” said Armstrong.

Wishard of the Peninsula Family Service agency said that for the Haven center, the best scenario if the cuts are sustained would be laying off considerable staff and limiting enrollment. At worst, the center may have to close. However, Wishard remains hopeful and urges legislators to restore the childcare funding.

After leaving the center for more than a year, Leni Haunga recently stopped working again to look after Joel because there is no affordable childcare option available for her. Now they are starting to fall behind in paying their expenses again.

“I believe we gonna go homeless again,” she said.