PHOENIX — While watching her children on the playground in the safety of her temporary home, Mariana Romero-Garcia is breathing a sigh of relief.
“I’m glad that I did call, because if not then we’d still be out there,” she said.
Out there, meaning inside Garcia’s SUV, where she and her kids slept for nine weeks while on the waitlist for housing at UMOM New Day Centers.
“Those were the hardest nine weeks ever,” Garcia said. “I wouldn’t sleep at night because I would be watching them just to make sure that they were safe. They were sleeping in their car seats. They’re traumatized from being in the car for that long. They don’t even want to get in the car anymore.”
It started when she lost her job during the pandemic and was eventually evicted from her home.
Cassidy Penney, with UMOM New Day Centers, says it’s a story all too common.
“It’s unacceptable that children are sleeping on the streets. It’s not ok and nobody in our community should be ok with that,” she said.
Penney says the center has seen an increase in clients since the start of the pandemic, but the problem has worsened with rising rent and the eviction moratorium being lifted in October.
Right now, there are over 200 families on UMOM’s waitlist to get into a shelter.
“The lack of affordable housing in our community, it’s a serious problem,” she said. “There are so many people who just cannot afford.”
UMOM isn’t the only nonprofit seeing an increase. Sandi Flores with Catholic Charities says they’ve seen about a 10% increase in people coming to them for housing assistance.
“The challenge is A, locating units and B, locating units that are affordable,” Flores said “Most of that government funding will help us to get them back in but it’s not long term. It’s a short-term solution to get folks housed. The reality is once that assistance goes away, are they able to afford those units on their own?”
The charity has helped people, like Michael Berry, find housing. For Berry, he waited 18 months after getting out of prison until a landlord was willing to give him a chance at an affordable price.
“It was just a blessing, because I spoke to her and she had it in her heart to give me a chance,” he added.
For Garcia, her time at UMOM is up next month. The hope is that by then, she’ll have a stable job and enough money to rent her own place. But she knows it won’t be easy.
“They want two or three times the income (for) the rent, and many people don’t make that,” she said. “We can’t go back to our car. I refuse to. My daughter draws pictures of houses and I’m like, what’s that baby? And she’s like that’s our new house. So, I can’t just leave here without anything.”