For that small minority who try to wriggle their way out from under the rules of the house, the words can be blunt and simple.
"This isn't about us," Cynthia Caughey or one of her four case managers at the Women's Care Cottage might say. "This is about you. You have 60 days to get your life together."
With that clarifying deadline--a two-month respite from the streets--residents of the North Hollywood shelter for homeless women and their children are given a chance to find a place to live, maybe a job and a better life for their children.
"Some folks need that 60 days," said Caughey, the shelter's executive director. "They can really pull it together."
About 75% of the shelter residents leave with permanent housing and half with jobs. But a few don't make it, and after two months are in other shelters or back on the streets.
"You have to know you're not going to save the world," Caughey said.
With 15 beds and a daytime drop-in center that handles more than 6,000 visits a year--up from 2,000 only two years ago--the Women's Care Cottage is the only shelter in the San Fernando Valley geared specifically to helping homeless women and their children. It is also one of several agencies that won a 1994 Los Angeles Times Community Partnership Award.
Shelter backers are trying to raise $375,000 to finance a move for the drop-in center into a larger facility to handle heavy demand--the result of a poor economy and because the center has become more widely known.
Many women who come to the shelter have been beaten or sexually abused. They may have left their husbands, but then found that, with a lower earning potential than most men, they were barely getting by. Any major financial crisis--such as one of the children getting sick--may have pushed them onto the streets.
Living out of a car, on the streets or in a shelter can be much more frightening for a woman than a man, Caughey said. But the problem is not as quickly recognized because a woman with children on the streets may not appear homeless.
Many women will hide the fact that they are homeless--even from their friends--spending their days browsing at department stores and getting a shower at the YMCA, Caughey said.
"The difference we see between the clients we see and us is that we have someone to go to," she said. "They've had to leave all their support systems."
Eventually, they may find their way to the Women's Care Cottage day drop-in center, where some temporary housing may be found, such as a voucher for a motel.
"Most are depressed, kind of in shock," Caughey said.
Those who have lived at the shelter have included professionals, an executive secretary, paralegals and other well-educated women who have stumbled into poverty. "They have been beaten down to the bottom," Caughey said.
While at the shelter, the women are required to attend therapy sessions, and parenting and budgeting classes.
A small percentage try to get out of the sessions by lying, which comes as no surprise to Caughey. She knows that such manipulation is a survival tool on the streets. But in this shelter, Caughey and her staff try to teach the women how to handle situations without lying or evasions.
"You're worth more than that," they are told.
Sometimes when facing the frustrations of finding a job and a place to live, they want to give up, saying, "This is too hard, you do it for me."
"We say, 'No,' " Caughey said.
Despite the firm line, former shelter residents often come back to visit years after they have settled into new lives. Some come back because their children have fond memories of the holidays spent there.
"We try not to feel like a shelter," Caughey said. "It's a home."