Day after day, Criselda Feria waits for a phone call that will give her good news. Her name is stuck on a waiting list that will give her a slot for federally-subsidized child care.
Feria’s 18-month-old son is one of the 2,074 children still on the Contra Costa County’s waiting list to receive Early Head Start child care.
Early Head Start is a federally-funded community-based program that offers services for pregnant women and childcare for children from newborns to those who are three years old. Eligibility is based on financial need. The program is only available to families who have incomes below the federal poverty line. A family of three people must have an annual income of $20,160 or less.
The long waiting list comes despite a generous $3.4 million federal grant awarded on March 27 to Contra Costa County’s Community Services Bureau (CSB) to provide Early Head Start child care for children in need. The grant provides funding for care services to assist 190 children. It also has a provision to provide a safety net to children whose parents get job promotions that would make them no longer eligible for the program.
“We actually have families who are turning down job promotions so they can remain eligible and receive their subsidies,” says Camilla Rand, director of CSB.
Over the past year, according to Rand, five percent of all Contra Costa families using Early Head Start lost their state subsidies, but were able to retain childcare thanks to a previous similar grant.
In the meantime, many children still don’t have a place in the childcare program.
“I did my intake for my boy early February or March  and it’s been a long time,” said Feria. She said she has been calling every week, asking “Do you have a spot for my son?”
For Feria, finding quality childcare will be her ticket out of homelessness. While still pregnant, Feria became homeless and sought refuge at the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program (GRIP), which provides year-round emergency shelter and transitional housing for families with children. For the next 18 months, Feria lived at the shelter, but soon her time was up.
After 18 months of searching, Feria still has not found housing and now lives in a motel, paying $2,400 a month since January with the little savings she put aside from working in customer service at Shoes at Solano in Berkeley.
“I really want to venture out to a better-paying job. However, I am not able to because of the child care issue,” said Feria. “I have to ask the father to watch the baby or I will actually have to pay somebody I know. But, you know, that’s not going to help my situation.”
Feria leaves her son with his father, who has resorted to working graveyard shifts to take care of his son. Other days, Feria is stuck paying between $100 to $160 for 8 hours’ worth of babysitting. Feria has made efforts to locate other centers and services, but cannot find anything within her budget. She is registered with Early Head Start in two other counties, as well, but her son also remains on their wait lists.
“There will always have very high wait lists, even when we’re pulling grant dollars,” said Katharine Mason, division manager of CSB. “It reduces some of that unmet need, but we still are a long way of meeting that need.”
Limited funding for subsidized services from sources such as the state or federal government play a role in the services deficiency, as well as the need for facility space to operate expanded services, said Mason.
“Facilities that meet the high environmental and safety standards of Community Care Licensing and the various funders is very limited, especially here in the Bay Area,” said Mason. “Property and building occupancy costs are high, sometimes resulting in providers being priced out of viable options.”
Contra Costa County reapplies for grant money every year, but the money is distributed between centers that already provides services to 1,351 children in the Head Start program and 573 children in Early Head Start, making it difficult to assist more children, according to Mason.
“We work with several child care partners throughout the county, so we always refer families to our childcare families and they refer their families to see if we have space,” said Mason. “We are trying to cast a big net and really help those parents to find the care that they need.”
First 5 Contra Costa, an organization that funds programs that help children on their first five years using funding from Proposition 10, a California ballot initiative passed in 1998 which added a 50 cent-per-pack tax on tobacco products, also offers support for these frustrated parents. They have created a “Quality Rating and Improvement System,” helping parents find all childcare providers in their area. They use a rating system from 1 to 5 stars verifying the quality of care of the center.
But for Feria, time continues to work against her. She is still making endless calls to Head Start, hoping for a call to move her life forward.
“I just hope to get out of this homelessness,” said Feria. “I want my son to have a place to finally call home.”
Correction: This article was updated on April 19 to accurately reflect a quote from Katharine Mason.