What Laura Sanders says she misses the most about having her own place is watching movies on the couch with her five children and knowing they are safe.

The family has been homeless and living in emergency shelters for nearly a year, despite Sanders qualifying for assistance through the federal Section 8 housing assistance program.

“She’s a great mother, very caring and attentive to her children’s needs and their health,” said Jamie Kish, an advocate with the Center for a Non Violent Community. “She’s working on bettering their future everyday.”

Sanders, 35, and her children are living at the emergency shelter run by the Center for a Non Violent Community at an undisclosed location in Tuolumne County.

All six were initially staying in one bedroom with two bunk beds until a second room opened up a few weeks after they moved in last June.

One of the rooms is shared by Sanders and her sons Mark, 9, David, 12, and youngest daughter, Annabelle, 7, while the other is shared by her eldest daughters, Danielle, 17, and Gabrielle, 15.

There are seven other people living at the four-bedroom shelter that has a total of 12 beds.

“Our emergency shelter stay is typically 90 days, but we’re not going to just send a mom and her five kids out on the street,” Kish said.

Advocates at the shelter have helped seven families find permanent housing in the past year, though none were as large as Sanders’ family.

Sanders is on the waiting list for every subsidized housing complex in the county. Most tell her it could be years before a unit becomes available.

“I don’t have three years to wait,” said Sanders, whose “transition date” to move out of the shelter is Jan. 1.

In addition to qualifying for the federal program, Sanders is also approved for rapid rehousing through the state that helps cover the depos it and move-in costs. She attends Sierra Bible Church in East Sonora, where members have also pledged to pay for two additional deposits.

Kish said she’s watched Sanders make dozens of phone calls a day for potential rentals only to be turned away from them all because they don’t accept Section 8 tenants.

Sanders said most landlords she’s spoken to politely decline. However, she had one landlord tell her, “I pay for that program,” before hanging up on her. Another said she didn’t want to deal with the government bureaucracy.

Some property management companies have told her they would never consider renting to someone with a Section 8 housing voucher.

“There’s a stigma,” Sanders said.

The Stanislaus County Housing Authority administers the Section 8 housing-assistance program for the counties of Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Calaveras, Amador, Alpine, Inyo, Mariposa and Mono.

Section 8 vouchers cover the cost of the rent that exceeds 30 percent of the renter’s income.

About 65 percent of the 355 people on the authority’s Section 8 waiting list in Tuolumne County last year were elderly or disabled, according to officials.

Kish said all seven of the other families the center has helped get into permanent housing through the program over the past year have been successful partnerships without incident.

Officials at the authority have long said that there’s plenty of money available to help people in need, but the problem is finding landlords willing to participate in the program.

Homes must meet the program’s requirements in order to be eligible for the subsidy.

A landlord can request a free inspection by contacting the authority. There’s no obligation for the property owner to do anything if it doesn’t pass the inspection.

“There’s a big team behind her, but we just need some players,” said Kish.

Sanders was forced to leave the previous two homes she had rented after they were sold to new owners.

They stayed for a time earlier this year at the 25-bed homeless shelter in Sonora run by the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency before going to a shelter in San Andreas run by the Center for a Non Violent Community.

While at the San Andreas shelter, Sanders and her kids got up at 5 a.m. each day for her to drive them to school.

Danielle is a junior at Sonora High and is a representative on the school’s ASB Executive Council, and Gabrielle is freshman class president. The youngest three children attend Curtis Creek Elementary School.

“They’re thriving, despite everything that’s happened,” Sanders said.

Sanders had her eldest daughter six days after she turned 18 and didn’t finish high school. She recently earned her GED and is taking classes at Columbia College to become a wastewater treatment operator.

She had to quit her previous job as a lab assistant after becoming homeless.

Sanders is surviving off government assistance while earning some additional cash by cleaning houses for people when she can.

She said one person remarked to her, “I just paid for your groceries today,” while she was using her EBT card at a store.

Most of Sanders’ days are spent looking for a place to rent in between driving her kids to and from school and extracurricular activities.

She recently planted a community garden in the shelter’s backyard, where she’s growing cabbage, brussel sprouts, broccoli (her children’s favorite), cauliflower, celery, sugar snap peas and onions.

“I felt like it was really important for me to leave something positive here, because they are changing people’s lives,” she said.

Sanders said she realizes that there are many other people in the county who are also struggling.

Her children help her stay positive, though she admits it’s not always easy.

“My kids are trying to find some joy and happiness in it and trying to help me, but the sadness can be pretty heavy some days,” she said.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

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