Some children come to school in their pajamas, others show callused toes poking through tattered sneakers. Two brothers alternated days in class because they had only one pair of good pants between them.
Throughout Los Angeles public schools, thousands of children struggle daily with a humbling consequence of poverty: inadequate clothing.
At a time when youths strive to keep up with social norms that say what you wear is a statement about who you are, attending school in ragged clothes is often embarrassing and can hinder learning, educators and children’s advocates say.
The worn-out, torn clothes on their backs is one visible sign of the poverty that afflicts nearly three-quarters of Los Angeles Unified School District students, who commonly come to school hungry and sick.
About 72% of the district’s 711,000 students come from families living in poverty. Although there are no records kept on how many children lack proper clothing, officials estimate that at least half the students at the poorest schools wear little more than rags or unwashed clothes because mom ran out of quarters at the laundry.
The magnitude of the problem is seen at places like Operation School Bell, a Hollywood charitable group that outfits thousands of poor children a year with new sets of clothes. It is seen every year when 5,000 to 7,000 children show up for a “Back to School” shoe giveaway at the Fred Jordan Mission on Skid Row. It is seen at schools like Morningside Elementary in San Fernando, where teachers keep a stash of sweaters for students wearing tank tops during recesses on cold mornings.
Although millions of poor children nationwide lack adequate clothing, advocates say the issue is overshadowed by the more urgent needs of hunger and health care, said Julian Palmer, a spokesman for the National Center for Children in Poverty, based in New York City.
“But,” Palmer said, “millions of children are affected in painfully silent ways, such as inadequate clothing, that diminish their quality of life and opportunities.”
Inadequate clothing can be one part of a sad equation that leads children to skip school and have behavioral and academic problems, experts say. It can hint at problems at home, including neglect, loss of income by parents and a lack of food.
“Usually, kids not having enough clothing is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Hector Madrigal, LAUSD’s director of pupil services and attendance. “A lack of clothing is like a student that is crying for help.”
Because 13-year-old Alvaro Perez’s parents cannot afford to buy him a new sweater or shoes, he shivers in class on cold days. When it rains, he sometimes misses school because his shoes have holes.
The shy, thin boy who lives in a tough Canoga Park neighborhood said he hates missing school and wants to be a lawyer when he grows up.
Laughed At by Other Students
“I want to do something good with myself,” said Alvaro, who attends Parkman Middle School in Woodland Hills. “I want to help my mother. I don’t want to be in a gang. I try to study, but it’s hard because I don’t fit in. They make fun of my clothes.”
His parents struggle with five children, ages 5 to 13. Sometimes they can afford only tortillas for dinner. Family members take turns sleeping on the bed and the floor while using old curtains for blankets.
His mother, Candida Vasquez, wishes she could buy her children new clothes and shoes--especially shoes. Her children wear them out quickly. Without a car, they walk to school and the market along unpaved roads and across vacant lots.
Once she saved $5 and bought a pair of shoes for Alvaro, not realizing they were girls’ shoes. His classmates laughed at him. Alvaro’s used clothing and hand-me-downs call attention to his poverty, too: high-water pants, a tattered blue sweater left over from elementary school.
At Van Nuys High School, Sara Carrasco, a school liaison between teachers and parents, often hears about students who want to stay home because of their clothes--not because they don’t have garments with designer labels but because they simply lack more than one shirt or one pair of pants.
“A parent told me [recently] that her son doesn’t want to come to school anymore because he only has one pair of pants and one shirt,” Carrasco said. “He’s embarrassed. His classmates were teasing him.”
The boy’s mother turned to charity, finding a jacket, three pairs of pants and some T-shirts from the school’s collection of donated clothes or unclaimed items in a lost-and-found box.
Many schools in Los Angeles Unified have similar stashes. On cold days at Morningside Elementary School in San Fernando, Veronica Sosa, a parent volunteer, regularly scans the playground and summons children who are running around in thin or torn shirts.
Sosa gives them sweaters and makes sure that they put the sweaters on. “We see a lot of bad clothes,” she said.
Parents also scout places such as Goodwill or the Salvation Army but often, they said, the clothes look particularly worn and torn. Many Los Angeles Unified schools encourage students to wear uniforms, which most poor parents favor, despite the cost of about $30, because their children are less likely to be taunted for wearing outdated styles, ragged clothes and the same outfit day after day.
Ten-year-old Juan boils with anger over his family’s poverty. At Middleton Street Elementary School in Huntington Park, teachers frequently reprimand him for fighting, including an incident in which he tried to stab another student with a pencil.
Neither of Juan’s parents works. His father, Kepler, 51, hasn’t had a steady paycheck since 1997, when he underwent open-heart surgery. Juan’s mother, Sonia, 40, stays home to care for her husband.
The family receives $840 a month in welfare and about $200 in food stamps. After paying $530 a month for a cramped, one-bedroom apartment, the parents said, little remains for clothing.
Meanwhile, Juan describes having to defend himself and his younger sister. “A whole bunch of people pick on me,” he said in a quiet voice. “They think they have a lot more things than I do. It makes me mad. It makes me want to beat them up.”
Helping Out With Donated Clothes
Hoping to ease the plight of families in similar straits, a few nonprofit agencies in Los Angeles--such as Clothes Corner in the San Fernando Valley and Operation School Bell in Hollywood--provide students with “cool” clothes, everything from new Rugrats raincoats to Old Navy cargo pants and necessities such as underwear.
Nurses, teachers and district social workers refer students--from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade--to the two organizations, which together outfit an estimated 4,400 students a year. Appointments are backlogged for as much as two months.
Juan received two school uniforms, pants, sneakers, shirts and a sweatshirt with a basketball logo during his recent trip to School Bell. “It feels good to get new clothes,” he said.
“My children were so happy when they came home from School Bell with the clothes--bags full of them,” Juan’s mother said. “They just kept trying the clothes on over and over and admiring themselves and asking me, ‘How do I look, Mommy?’ ”
At Middleton Elementary, as many as eight students per class are routinely referred to Operation School Bell. “I’ve been in Mexico and in Thailand and Central America and I’ve seen a lot of poverty,” said Sylvia Poareo, a counselor at Middleton. “But you don’t expect to see poverty as bad as this in the United States--especially so close to Beverly Hills.”
Krista Lombard, a counselor at Magnolia Avenue Elementary School in the Pico-Union district, estimated that 90% of the school’s nearly 2,000 students need clothing assistance. The poverty at Magnolia is so pervasive, administrators said, that the school has a standing appointment with the organization.
At Operation School Bell’s headquarters, just off Sunset Boulevard, a child can receive five new outfits, including two school uniforms and other essentials, such as underwear, socks, shoes, a hygiene kit--even a toy and a book. Children choose from new clothes purchased by the volunteer-run organization with its annual $220,000 budget or from items donated by companies, such as Guess and Miller’s Outpost.
Organizers say the new clothes give children a much-needed boost to their self-esteem, just as a shopping spree and stylish new suit can lift anyone’s spirit.
The clothes help to make students feel as if they belong, counselors said.
Attendance, Grades Can Deteriorate
Gail Kane, 30, who lives in a transitional housing shelter in San Pedro, worried that her two sons’ academic progress would be harmed by their inappropriate wardrobes. One of her sons failed physical education because he stopped trying after classmates ridiculed his too-tight uniform and his old-looking underwear.
“I notice their confidence level isn’t where it should be,” Kane said.
But their moods and attitudes improved after they received clothes from Operation School Bell, she said.
Organizers say they know of students whose attendance and grades improved after receiving new clothes.
“It’s about the kids feeling good about themselves--that they are part of a group and that they can measure up to the next person,” said Wendy Fleming, a School Bell volunteer. “It takes one less pressure off the kids. If they are worried about their clothing, the last thing they’ll be doing is listening to a teacher.”
Sauerwein is a Times staff writer; Cohen is a Times Community News correspondent.