The decision was made — Claudia Campos and her eight-month-old son Jimmy would stay at Simonka Place women’s shelter in Keizer. Her husband, Oscar, and their 14-year-old son AJ would sleep on the streets.
The Campos family had been homeless for over a month, but they’d been able to keep the children from sleeping outside until July of last year.
In Marion County, there are few shelters that will take full families. And they frequently come with waiting lines weeks or months long.
Many families have to decide whether it’s better to split up, especially when they have sons between the ages of 12 and 18 — they are too old to stay at the women’s and family shelters, but too young to stay at the men’s shelters.
“When you risk not having your kids with you — or knowing you don’t have a place for them to sleep at night — it takes over your mind,” Claudia Campos said. “You feel like, ‘Oh my God, I’m useless.'”
OUR HOMELESS CRISIS
► Homeless families risk being torn apart as they seek shelter
► Homeless Salem mom finds stability, future at Simonka Place
In the 2016-17 school year, nearly 2,000 K-12 students in Marion and Polk counties were homeless, according to the Oregon Department of Education. That includes students living in shelters, sleeping in cars, paying for motels or crashing on a friend’s couch.
That’s up from 1,762 homeless students in 2014-15.
The Campos family came to Oregon from Los Angeles in 2016, when they moved in with Claudia’s sister and her husband in Dallas. But Claudia’s relatives eventually gave them a deadline to move out and find their own place.
The family had a Section 8 voucher for low-income housing. But the houses available were in more rural, remote locations that were hard to access, especially since they didn’t have a car.
Available homes in Salem were not covered by the voucher.
To make matters worse, Oscar had to have surgery to amputate a toe lost to diabetic ulcers. Neither he nor Claudia could find work.
Through its Safe Families for Children program, Catholic Community Services found a family willing to take in Jimmy and AJ while they finished the 2016-17 school year in Salem.
But Claudia and Oscar had to stay at the Salvation Army.
Claudia struggled with depression and anxiety, only seeing her children six or seven times over more than a month.
“I was crying almost every day. I just wanted to (be with them),” she said. “I just wanted to know, ‘Are they okay?’ ‘Are they eating well?'”
The crisis came when the host family went on vacation and couldn’t watch the boys anymore. And the kids weren’t old enough to join their parents at the Salvation Army.
Oscar assured AJ he wouldn’t be sleeping on the streets alone. “I’m not (going) anywhere,” he told his son. “I’m gonna stay with you.”
But their luck changed that same day when Safe Families for Children called about an opening at the St. Joseph Shelter in Mt. Angel.
The shelter allows up to 12 families to live together. Each family has their own room in the dorm-like building, some with private restrooms.
Families cook their own food, are given job training and any other help they need, including counseling.
The Campos family quickly submitted an application. They interviewed the same day and were told they could begin sleeping there that night.
“I think that came from God,” Oscar said.
While the Campos family’s homeless situation is one that hundreds of other local families face, their ability to get a room at the shelter is an exception.
“We were lucky,” Claudia said. “There are some families with more difficulties.”
Some families, she explained, don’t “have good immigration status” or may need extensive medical attention. The shelter also doesn’t take anyone with a criminal background or a history of substance abuse.
And families don’t typically get a spot in the Mt. Angel shelter on the same day they interview.
There are currently 11 families staying at the shelter. The 12th slot is saved for emergency, last-minute situations. Families are expected to stay about six months, but that can vary by situation.
Oscar and Claudia said more shelters in the area should take entire families and expand their services.
“There are a lot of families out there going through the same thing; they’re separated from their kids,” Claudia said. “It’s overwhelming and it’s very difficult to … leave them with someone else.”
She said shelters also need to provide more resources to help them become self-sufficient.
At St. Joseph’s, Claudia has been able to train for office work and learn how to apply for future positions. She’s also learning how to save money and budget their expenses.
“Other shelters, they tell you about the resources, but they don’t help you,” Oscar said. At St. Joseph, “they tell you about the resources and they push you.
“They make you do something (for) yourself,” he said. “They push you … to do better.”
Claudia and Oscar have tried to focus on the things that bring them and their children joy as they transition to more permanent housing.
Oscar loves to cook and Claudia likes to bake. AJ is a music enthusiast — he plays some piano, percussion for his high school band and the guitar, which he taught himself by watching YouTube videos.
Jimmy loves all things Lego. He likes to build a spaceship, take it apart and build it again in a new way. And while he said he isn’t a master quite yet, he loves to play Minecraft.
“Sometimes people outside don’t understand what it means to not have a home,” Claudia said. “Even if we don’t have a permanent house … we try to do everything (we can) so the kids know we are here with them, that we’re never gonna leave them.”