This article addresses the question, "How do mothers and children in a homeless shelter interact with literacy?" We drew on the theoretical framework of social literacy practices in which cultural context is foregrounded. Data for this qualitative study included participant observation in one homeless shelter and interviews with one shelter's residents and other stakeholders, including teachers, administrators, shelter staff at various shelters, and homelessness experts across Los Angeles County, California. While examining the literacy practices of women and children living in one transitional shelter, we identified three institutions that were part of their lives (a) the public library, in which choice was a major factor; (b) the church, which focused on reading the Bible; and (c) schools, where literacy was tied to evaluative outcomes. Although families were overwhelmingly positive about their participation in each of these institutions and all three were referred to as places for learning, children's talk about reading and writing in school focused on procedures such as daily routines and testing. This may reflect the current mandated curriculum as well as the cost of frequent moves, which necessitate that children learn how to succeed in each new school. This study captures the influence of different institutions on the literacy practices of families in crisis and suggests ways to further support reading and writing for children living without homes.