Chris Gause is a single dad with one son who plays running back on a Mitey Mites football team, two daughters who are cheerleaders and a 4-year-old girl who serves as a pee-wee football mascot.
He gets choked up talking about them, partly because he’s so proud, but also because the family is without a home and living temporarily in a hotel on North Tryon Street in Charlotte.
It doesn’t appear help is on the way any time soon.
“We don’t use the word homeless. We’re displaced. Homeless is a bad word, a word with no hope,” Gause said last week, after learning his son is embarrassed that the school bus picks them up in front of a hotel. “My son is more ashamed of that word ‘homeless’ than our situation.”
Gause, 38, and his four preteen children are an example of a worsening gap in Mecklenburg County’s safety net for families: a complete lack of emergency shelter beds for fathers who have custody of their kids.
Charlotte also has a shortage of emergency beds for homeless couples with children, but they have an option to split up temporarily, with dads at the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte while women and children go to the Salvation Army Center of Hope.
Sometimes, a single dad with kids can find a place to stay with friends or family. But for others, the choices are to get a costly hotel room or to sleep in the car. Gause said they’ve not slept in the car yet, but it’s a possibility.
He said he lost his job and then his home this year after a traffic accident left him with back injuries. Things have gone downhill fast.
“Everybody tells me the same thing: It’s hard to help a man with children,” Gause said.
“They can’t help me because I’m a man? That’s crazy. Men get in these situations just like women, even a God-fearing man. Some agencies have humiliated me as a man for being in this spot, talking down to me. I put up with it because I love my kids too much to give up.”
Deronda Metz of the Salvation Army Center of Hope said Gause’s frustration is justified.
Her shelter turns away an average of 10 men with kids a month, a number she believes is rising. The Center of Hope has two dorm rooms that can take intact families, but they remain full.
Metz notes many cities around the country have solved this issue by creating emergency family shelters that take couples with kids. But even if Charlotte decided to go that route, she says the city is at a disadvantage because the existing shelter buildings are too small to retrofit into family dorms.
The overcrowded Center of Hope is expanding by 64 beds this year, but the renovated space will not include the kind of dorms needed for families.
“Charlotte does not have a plan to address homeless men with children,” Metz said. “It is not the biggest gap in the system. The biggest gap remains our lack of affordable housing, but help for homeless dads with kids is the gap that has received the least attention.”
She first took notice of the issue six years ago, and said the number of calls has continued to rise each year.
Experts say the recession is partly to blame, making it tougher for struggling parents to afford the upfront costs demanded by landlords. Those costs can be as much as $3,000, including two months rent in advance and security deposits.
Another factor, say some homeless advocates, is a greater willingness of social services departments in the state to give custody to single fathers, rather than put the children in foster care.
Gause said he won custody of his children two years ago while living in Charlotte. “I never knew my dad. He was never around, so I have this drive to be there for my kids,” he said.
He said he is paying for his extended-stay hotel room with donations from the Center of Hope and churches such as New Life City of Praise.
Diversion from shelters
The Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, which occasionally sees men with children seeking admission, says it prefers to use a solution called diversion. That involves calling friends or relatives of a homeless dad, to see if they’ll take in the family for the night. The Men’s Shelter also offers small amounts of cash for gas money or a bus pass to help with transportation.
Advocates for the homeless say the city’s best first step in solving the problem would be to create an emergency hotel fund that would put fathers and couples in motels for a few days or weeks.
The goal, Metz said, would be to keep homeless dads and couples with kids in hotels just long enough to arrange a longer term solution. That could including referrals to charities that rehouse homeless families with jobs, like Charlotte Family Housing.
A Salvation Army pilot program for an emergency hotel fund concluded earlier this year, using $60,000 from the nonprofit Social Venture Partners. It served 65 families, 10 of which were headed by a single dad.
Social Venture Partners is a nonprofit that seeks solutions for social problems by providing charities with short-term grants and the expertise of its 100-plus members.
Andy Cooney of Social Venture Partners is pleased with the findings of the pilot program, and the organization intends to team up with the Salvation Army to help it raise money for a more permanent hotel fund.
“Unfortunately, like most of the Charlotte shelters, the Salvation Army is struggling to meet the demand within its existing programs and will find it difficult to take on the program without a supplemental source of funding,” Cooney said.
In the meantime, men like Gause say they’re “waiting in limbo.”
“The best part of my day is when I put my children to sleep and I know they’re safe,” he said.
“But that’s also when I have time to sit in the quiet and worry. Right now, I’m not even sure we can afford this hotel another day.”