Libier, 11, is a fifth-grader at Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School who likes math and wants to attend a four-year university. And for the last three months, she has lived at a homeless shelter in Indio with her mother, older sister and toddler brother.
“Some of the kids at school do make fun of me about it, but it really doesn’t matter,” she said as she whirled around in a chair with her mahogany ponytail flying. “They aren’t friends.”
Libier is one of about 70 children who live at Martha’s Village & Kitchen and attends the elementary school a block from the shelter. Children from the shelter make up 10% of the elementary school’s student body, Principal Kyle Bunker said.
Poverty isn’t unusual in the eastern Coachella Valley, where many families live in run-down trailer parks or ramshackle housing, but the homeless shelter can offer hope to families in trouble.
Families, headed by one parent or both, are referred to the shelter from Corona, Moreno Valley and San Bernardino County. They can stay for up to 28 months, but the average stay is less than a year.
“There’s a lot of poverty at this end of the valley, and a lot of social services are needed,” Bunker said. “We try to help out as much as we can.”
Martha’s Village & Kitchen is part of Father Joe’s Villages, a nonprofit network of shelters for homeless families, youths and HIV-positive adults in San Diego and Riverside counties and in Mexico. Father Joe’s Villages calls itself a “homeless rehabilitation organization” that attempts to address the underlying causes of homelessness: domestic violence, mental illness, drug addiction, and the difficulty of finding work that pays a livable wage.
The network uses an array of programs and social services to give its clients the counseling and job skills they need to become self-sufficient.
Martha’s Village & Kitchen, which most people call Martha’s, was started in the kitchen of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Indio by Gloria Gomez and Claudia Castorena in 1990. In 1998, the small parish kitchen that at first served only 30 meals a week to the homeless became part of Father Joe’s Villages. Martha’s now serves 750 meals a day and in 2000, with private donations and public grants, built a $10-million, 120-bed homeless shelter.
Sometimes the help Martha’s provides come in the form of clothing. Many students at Roosevelt wear uniforms, but buying one is often beyond the means of poor parents.
“We make sure when they send the child off on the first day of school that the child has at least one uniform,” said Patty Danova, the former program manager for children’s services at the shelter. “When parents are not aware of all the resources, it’s the children that suffer.”
Children fill more than half of the 120 beds at Martha’s. Danova said she often sees homeless families living in cars outside the shelter and families stopping for a meal. “We just don’t have the room to accommodate more,” she said.
The shelter has a nursery where new mothers learn parenting skills, a preschool program, and an after-school program for children up to the fifth grade. There also are activities for teenagers.
On a recent afternoon, several children spent time in classrooms finishing homework, tracing letters or making posters for their rooms. Many took advantage of the open playground and had afternoon snacks of grilled cheese sandwiches that had been made by the staff.
Most said they enjoyed the shelter’s after-school program, which gives them time to play, read or talk before heading upstairs to the quieter residential area, where they’re not allowed to run or speak loudly.
“My favorite part about the after-school program is to not be upstairs,” said Roosevelt fifth-grader Nicholas, 11.
Parents are required to find work within six months of their stay, Danova said. Many also take basic education classes or the high school equivalency test, and learn job skills. A free health clinic, run by volunteers, is operated on the premises.
Danova said most of the families at the shelter have fled from domestic violence. Libier’s family is one of them.
“Many times, the family left in the middle of the night with only the clothes on their backs. It’s very traumatic for the children,” she said. “Many of the children begin falling behind in school.”
The shelter asked that Libier’s full name, and the names of other clients, not be disclosed.
Principal Bunker said homeless students may struggle with schoolwork after academic gaps, so the Desert Sands Unified School District provides a tutor to keep them on track.
“We notice a lot of kids from Martha’s come and go, and we try to provide them with as calming an atmosphere as possible,” he said.
The Road to Achievement Program, a tutoring program, is part of the U.S. No Child Left Behind Act, said Sabra Besley, coordinator of supplemental education for Desert Sands Unified.
Kindergarten to fifth-grade students such as Libier are given individualized assignments in language arts and mathematics Mondays through Thursdays. About 109 students, not all of them from the shelter, participate in the program, Besley said.
“Their eyes are wide open; their hearts are wide open and willing to receive anything you give them,” she said.
Libier’s family lives in a clean, dormitory-style room with a double bed and bunk beds for the two girls. Libier’s sister, Elibeth, 12, said she spends most of her time on her top bunk doing homework or watching DVDs, such as “The Lord of the Rings.” Elibeth, a coltish sixth-grader, smiled shyly and said she would like to go to an art college after high school and become an artist.
Her mother, Petra, 34, is taking English and learning to be computer literate.
“She used to ask me all the time, ‘How do you turn this thing on again?’ ” Libier said. “So now she’s learning.”
Penny, 35, is a massage therapist originally from Moreno Valley who stayed with her family at the shelter for more than a year. She and her family are moving from Martha’s to a townhome in La Quinta this week.
“The tutoring last year really helped,” she said, pausing a few minutes at the shelter while dropping off her two daughters before heading back to work. “The tutor was excellent and was able to help my daughter, Amanda, with her fourth-grade science project on magnets.”
Her two daughters attend Eagles Peak Charter School; her son goes to Indio High School.
“I couldn’t believe we found this place,” she said. “It was a godsend.”