For a moment, imagine the challenges you faced during the pandemic – which pushed many to the breaking point. Now imagine being homeless during the pandemic – without a warm, safe place for your family to live, without food and other necessities, and without extended family support. Community members facing that unimaginable ordeal are at the heart of the mission of Family Gateway – which provides stability and life-changing supportive services for children and their families experiencing homelessness.
Featured in the February 2021 edition of Texas Monthly, Family Gateway, an Independent Sector member located in Dallas, Texas, operates the only emergency shelter in the area that serves all types of families – traditional and nontraditional. It’s also the only area emergency shelter with enough bed capacity to take very large families – very recently, a multigenerational family of 12.
The nonprofit is Dallas’ designated access point for the homeless response system for families, so when people call about a family in need, they talk to Family Gateway first.
According to Chief Development Officer Ruthie Umberger, an average length of stay for families that need emergency shelter is about 54 days, which rose to about 81 days during the pandemic. The process of rehousing families takes about one year, and families with children that have special needs may stay significantly longer.
“In 2016, we implemented what we call ‘assessment and diversion,’” Umberger explains. “Our first goal is not to place a family in an emergency shelter situation if we can avoid it.
“We see whether we can negotiate with a landlord about an eviction, or whether they’ve got family in Louisiana to pay their bus ticket to get them there, rather than bringing them into shelter.
“While there are definitely things that happen in a shelter that are productive and positive, it is still a traumatizing experience to move a family out of where they’re used to into a place they aren’t used to. Assessment and diversion helps us keep folks out of a shelter if we can, and matches the intervention a family needs with what they’re going through.”
Family Gateway also has an education team that works with children and vocational case managers who work with adults to make sure they not only are securing jobs and income, but moving up the job ladder and increasing wages to eventually move past homelessness.
Family Gateway implements a program called Rapid Rehousing. “It is typically a year,” she explains. “So the first three months, Family Gateway pays the full monthly rent for the family, gradually tapering off support while the family takes more responsibility incrementally until they are accustomed to paying the full bill.”
When emergency shelter is the only option, case managers institute a housing stabilization plan to determine what barriers need to be overcome to enable the family to transition to an apartment or house.
But even with the number of challenges associated with addressing homelessness, not unexpectedly, the pandemic created even more.
“This past year was a pandemic on two fronts. We saw inequitable access to healthcare, and I include housing in that. It was finally brought to the country’s attention what is really going on with systemic racism. That’s something we see every day in our work. Dallas’ African American and Black population is about 22 percent. Our work is inextricably linked to racial justice, as nearly 70% of families served by Family Gateway are African American. And that’s not an accident because Dallas has a very racist history.
“But it’s come to the forefront, and people are actually talking about and working on it. Our board looks significantly different than it did several years ago, and we’re intentional in that our staff who work with our clients represent the population that we serve.”
Umberger says while they’re good at getting people in, stabilizing them, and finding them housing, they’re lucky to have strong partnerships with hospital and mental health systems, noting that mental health is often at the root of homelessness. “We‘re excited to be adding a mental health care manager this year to bolster that piece, too. I mean, if people didn’t have mental health issues before the pandemic, we all do now.”
Umberger, who started with Family Gateway shortly after the pandemic began, says the nonprofit and other shelters began meeting regularly with the city of Dallas and health officials in March 2020, and that other shelters shut down due to outbreak fears.
“Family Gateway saw an opportunity to step up to fill a gap that was created because people were scared,” and while they had to decrease capacity in their dormitory-style shelter, they started overflowing into what they called ‘Shelter Two,’ a suite-style hotel that was conducive to having families and mitigating the spread of COVID-19. “And so we operated our shelter downtown and spent more than $300,000 outside of our budget to keep pace with demand for care in a hotel.”
Despite different challenges brought on by the pandemic last year, eight out 10 families who needed shelter care in the community were served in Family Gateway’s emergency shelter or hotel overflow program. Umberger said, “We felt it was our responsibility to not return folks to their cars or leave them out in the street. It just wasn’t going to happen.”
What’s more, due to the super vigilance of Family Gateway staff, they only had three cases of COVID throughout 2020.
“Most of our clients felt they were barely making it, and then the pandemic just layered on crisis after crisis after crisis – from child care, to job access, to trying to figure out how to navigate healthcare. For a lot of them, they were just hanging on before this, and then there’s just no way after the pandemic hit.”
But what’s most rewarding for Family Gateway’s staff, according to Umberger, “is slowly but surely helping families put the pieces back together, finding childcare and employment to boost their income, and helping them get their own place again.”
Family Gateway, an Independent Sector member, provides stability and life-changing supportive services to children and families affected by homelessness. Family Gateway believes that all children and their families have the right to a safe place to live and that families are stronger together as they face challenges. The top photograph is courtesy of Family Gateway. Learn about other Independent Sector members and becoming a member.