My Experience Parenting While Homeless

“It was never a goal of mine to be homeless, but it happened.” Gladys Fonfield-Ayinla shares her story of struggling with domestic violence, homelessness, and chronic illness while caring for her young daughter. She offers recommendations to improve systems of care for parents and children, advocating for an end to “one size fits all” service models.  This is an excerpt from a commentary published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry as part of the Special Section on Parenting and Homelessness.

This is an excerpt from an article published in the Special Section on Parenting and Homelessness, guest edited by the HRC and published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol. 79, No. 3, July 2009. Visit the HRC Parenting and Homelessness Topic Page to read more.

It was never a goal of mine to be homeless, but it happened. I prided myself on taking all the necessary steps to ensure my children’s safety and provide them with a nice, loving place to call home. I was able to do this for my first, now deceased, child and planned to do the same and better for my second child. Unfortunately, domestic violence and broken systems of care prevented me from accomplishing this. Instead, my daughter and I endured homelessness for two years.

Homelessness and the services and programs we were forced to rely upon affected the quality of care I was able to provide for my child. There is nothing normal about raising a child in this environment. I did my best, but it wasn’t easy. Today, I try not to think about the precious time we lost when we were homeless. It really hurts that my family and I missed out on enjoying so much of her infancy.

Less than a year after my older daughter’s death, I met and married a man I barely knew. I realize now that I was clearly not in a frame of mind to have made such a critical decision. Abuse plagued my marriage and our home. I filed charges against my husband for domestic violence and he was arrested. His trial was lengthy, and I was the main witness. I continued to work but had to take time off to be in court.

I was living in affordable housing, and had been in good standing with the housing authority for thirteen years. Because my husband would not give me his pay stubs, the housing authority withdrew my voucher. I was not able to pay the rent without the subsidy of about $200 to $300. I found myself alone with a young baby and no place to call home.

In an attempt to secure housing where we would be safe, I enrolled in a domestic violence shelter program. During the first interview, the intake worker told me that it was protocol to remove me from the area. I took a leave of absence from my job of seven years because the shelter was so far away. Because I did not have paid leave, I had to apply for benefits through welfare.

Many things about this experience were difficult. The interview process was very dehumanizing and the pain of everything that had happened to me was like an open wound. Retelling my story day after day was very upsetting, yet this is the process you must go through to be accepted into shelter.

My family and coworkers were a good support system for us, but they were no longer accessible. My requests to stay close to supportive friends and family fell on deaf ears. If I wanted shelter, rules were rules. The only thing that could have prepared me for shelter living would have been spending time in jail. I had to follow rules and regulations as if I had committed a crime.

We no longer had the physical space for my daughter to even crawl and develop in other ways. We were limited to a confined, small, cold room. I remember sneaking a heating pad into our bed because the heating system was broken. Electrical or other heating devices were against house rules even though it was in the dead of winter.

My daughter’s life was nowhere near normal. She needed familiar people around her—people who she could play with and would hold her—instead of strangers in the shelter. It would have been so much better to care for my child with the support of my family. However, they were not allowed to know where we were. I was sinking fast into depression. I knew this could be even more damaging to us both.

I eventually found a transitional housing program that allowed me to return to work and for daughter to return to daycare. We had finally come closer to a normal life, yet we had to obey strict rules in the housing program. We were required to attend house meetings, and I had no choice but to leave my child in the care of the organization’s volunteers. As a parent, you are supposed to be able to choose who cares for your child, but in shelters, this becomes the choice of the program staff. Many of us were afraid to speak out because we did not want to lose the only place we had to call home.

As we made our way through transitional housing, I saw that fights among children were a source of conflict among parents. I witnessed mothers and their children leaving and I tried hard not to let it happen to us. However, I eventually faced conflict with a parent about my child. Regardless of our efforts to follow the rules and participate in the program, we were told to leave.

Realizing that we had nowhere to go, I became very ill. While I was hospitalized, my daughter went into foster care until my family could be located. I recall the hospital staff snatching my daughter from my arms and then everything went blank. My family had to go to court to get my daughter as I lay in the hospital in a coma. I still have no idea where she was for one whole weekend during that time. When I got better, I had to prove to the Department of Social Services that I was a worthy parent in order to have the case closed.

My daughter and I are currently on the road to recovery. We were fortunate to have met compassionate social workers, service providers who went above and beyond, my caring family doctor, and others in the field who respected my drive to achieve and move past the trauma I experienced. They helped me turn my tragedies into empowerment and healing.

I gained respect and felt supported when I chose to return to school. I have found a new passion. I graduated with a Human Service degree in May 2008 and plan to work diligently to change policies related to homelessness. I want to help prevent senseless family homelessness, especially when prevention is possible and much less costly.

I also felt supported to do all that I could to ensure my daughter’s education. It took effort to find schools that focused on her strengths and not on her homelessness. Surviving homelessness means that we beat the odds and successfully moved on. We overcame many obstacles, and I do not want to be criticized or stigmatized because I faced them. My experience is one that I will share to show my child and others that all things are possible if you can make it through the rough times.

I would like to see programs move away from “one size fits all” service models. Parents who face homelessness need individualized services plans that address their strengths and needs. It is critical to involve consumers as partners in their own treatment planning and recovery. Homeless service programs would benefit by moving away from dehumanizing language. Labels like “case manager” or “client” are not helpful because they assume that “clients” are passive recipients of services, and that “case managers” or other clinicians know what is best for them. Anyone seeking services for their families would want to contribute to treatment planning for their children and themselves. People who are homeless are no different.

Labels can also hurt children when they are in school. As an involved parent in my child’s education, I have witnessed discrimination. Once a child’s past or present homelessness is discovered, some school personnel expect your child to perform below average. They assume the parent is under educated as well, and the cycle of broken systems continues as these children are left behind.

Perhaps with fewer labels, more people would recognize that homelessness is a situation, not a personality trait. It does not make a person any more ignorant or any less human. It does not make a child any less able to learn or succeed. Most importantly, it does not make a person any less capable of being a loving parent.

Check out the "Related Items" to the right of the screen.

Publication Date: 
Rockville, MD, USA