Rashad Abdullah, 32, and his girlfriend, Erika Craycraft, 29, sit side-by-side on their twin-sized mattress, their fingers interlaced.
They blissfully watch as their five children – ranging from 10 months to 11 years old – entertain themselves with coloring books and toys until dinnertime. The scent of warm chili, cornbread and caramelizing onions seeps from a commercial-size kitchen into the family’s room.
It’s a calm Thursday evening at Next Move’s Family Shelter in Oak Park, where Abdullah, Craycraft and their children have lived since October. The shelter has offered the family a much-needed place of refuge from the chaotic state of homelessness in which they found themselves a month prior.
After relocating his family from Ohio to Sacramento to be closer to relatives, Abdullah found it difficult to compete within California’s job and housing markets. Despite experience in a range of career fields – welding, nursing, cargo and the culinary arts, among others – Abdullah struggled to find a job that would pay enough to afford a safe home for his family of seven.
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The family was evicted from its Arden Arcade apartment earlier this fall. The large family was forced to spread throughout Sacramento – living with friends, cousins and grandparents, and often only seeing one another once a week.
“When your family is apart like that, there are a lot of gaps in communication and a lot of misunderstanding,” Craycraft said. “There’s no time to be together. And when you are together, everyone is fighting for attention. It leads to dysfunction.”
“Living in the shelter now, there is a lot more function,” she said.
While other shelters would have split up the family into separate rooms or facilities, Next Move provided them one room to share, furnished with two bunk beds and a crib for the couple’s 11-month-old, Amare.
“While we were homeless, my priority was always work,” Abdullah said. “But it was so hard to be without my family because I didn’t get to see what I was working for at the end of the day.
“I was always wondering, ‘Are my kids safe?’ ‘Do my kids have food?’ – there are a million questions that keep you up at night when you are away from your family.”
Next Move’s Family Shelter serves up to 23 families at a time for 30-day periods of safe living on the organization’s renovated Oak Park campus. Next Move partners with local nonprofit and government agencies to connect its guests with job coaching, counseling, housing assistance and financial planning.
“The goal of the program is not just to provide short-term housing for these families, but to help them invest in seeking long-term solutions to their homelessness,” said Tricia Rosenbaum, Next Move’s executive director. “The shelter is a soft platform to land on, but it’s not a place to lay and rest.”
During the day, guests are on a set schedule. Children, who have often fallen out of school as a result of their family’s homelessness, are reintroduced into the education system and provided afternoon homework help by Next Move staff members. Adults are expected to attend group classes that teach practical life skills, such as budgeting and communication.
Families also are responsible for weekly chores.
The goal is to instill a sense of consistency and normalcy back into the families’ lives, said Mark Orth, the shelter’s director. “A sense of routine shows a child that there is another side to the instability that they previously experienced,” he said.
Next Move also aims to provide the shelter’s children with the highest level of comfort and security possible during their monthlong stay. However, because it relies heavily on donations, the organization has often found it difficult to supply its clients with basic living supplies, such as clothing and shoes.
“These families come to us so emotionally broken and with nothing of their own,” said Marilyn Mann, director of community partnership. “We believe in giving them a place to land that’s a little softer than where they came from. Giving them their own clean pair of socks or underwear or jammies is a good start.”