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Death of homeless family forces OC to examine how families receive aid

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Grace Resource Center in Lancaster receives no funding from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority for housing families. Currently, there are 61 family members staying at the center's shelter.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Grace Resource Center in Lancaster receives no funding from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority for housing families. Currently, there are 61 family members staying at the center's shelter.

The tragic death of a family of four in their van sheds light on the hidden world of homeless families and the obstacles they face in finding available resources.

Last week, authorities in Garden Grove were alerted to a tragic discovery. A family of four, including two young children, were found dead inside their van.

The family was homeless and had been living in their vehicle. The cause of death is believed to have been accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.

Orange County officials estimate that roughly half of the homeless are part of a family unit. Homeless families are difficult to accurately track, because they often find temporary refuge outside of plain sight.

Take Two’s A Martinez spoke with Elizabeth Andrade, Director of the Family Solutions Collaborative, an Orange County organization that works with homeless families.

“They fear having their children removed from their custody. There’s a large misconception that being homeless is neglect or abuse of a child... only if there was actual abuse or neglect happening would there be a reportable scenario,” said Andrade. More homeless families might seek assistance were it not for this fear.

While it may not be obvious from the outside, homeless families often opt to seek shelter in their vehicles, at least for a portion of the time because it is thought to be the more stable than going in and out of shelters. Andrade days homeless parents are simply “trying to build a sense of normalcy within that situation for their family.”

Andrade finds that many of the homeless families she encounters are working but are underemployed or earning minimum wage. In a financially unstable situation, families are forced to choose between buying food or paying rent. In some cases, it’s an unavoidable but unforeseen expense that’s the catalyst. “I’ve worked with families [whose] child was sick for a week, and that resulted in them losing their job and then spiraling into losing their housing,” said Andrade. “Other families, if they miss an hour or two of work, that really impacts their ability to maintain.”

Services are available for food and housing assistance but there’s no specific place where people can find all of the resources available to them. Instead, people have to reach out to individual shelters or service organizations to seek aid. That’s the missing piece Family Solutions Collaborative and their member organizations are trying to supply. The organization wants “to bring all of the resources that each unique agency offers and create them to be succinct and supportive to the family situation,” Andrade said.

Incidents like the family found in Garden Grove might accelerate efforts to find housing for Orange County’s homeless families, she said. “Part of it is that awareness and have the general public understand that this is a real issue in OC,” Andrade said. “There are children every night who are in their cars. It provides a sense of reality when we’re describing the problem...because it's not visible, it's not common to see families out on the street.”

Andrade believes that ending homelessness for families in Orange County is possible but until comprehensive change is instituted, she said, “we need the churches and the schools to help connect these families to the overarching system of care.”

To hear the full interview with Elizabeth Andrade, click on the media player above.

*Quotes edited for clarity and brevity. 

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