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Hidden in L.A. suburbia, wrenching poverty preys on children and destroys dreams

For Brenda Salgado, finding a ride for her children to get to school is hard. Trying to escape the poverty her children endure is much harder. Bouncing from one cramped motel to another is how this mother of four is surviving, like many other families in the suburbs of Los Angeles. With the scars of abuse and addiction in her past, and credit problems and unemployment in her present, Salgado wants to carve out a better future for her two boys and two girls. But it’s more a dream, than a plan.

School had been in session less than two months when Brenda Salgado and her kids packed and moved. It was mid-September and they’d already been in three places. First a motel, then a two-bedroom apartment stuffed with more than two dozen people, then one of the many discount lodges on a dreary stretch of Sepulveda Boulevard in North Hills.

One morning, a little after 7, I wheeled into the parking lot of Salgado’s one-star motel near a busy Sepulveda intersection where the air smelled of burned gas and fried food. Guests stood outside their rooms under rising parachutes of cigarette smoke, and some of the parked cars were crammed with the belongings of people on the move.

I took the stairs to Salgado’s second-floor unit and heard the giggles of children. When I knocked, Salgado called me in.

The $95 room had two beds, a dark rug, harsh light and the familiar, unnatural scent of motel sanitizing agents. There was no kitchen, no quiet corner for homework, no outdoor space. Anthony, 9, Jordan, 6, and Madelyn, 5, were dressed and ready for school at Telfair Elementary, six miles away in Pacoima. One-year-old Mayla, dark-haired and curious, sat upright on a bed and looked me over.

The most disturbing thing about the scene was that for the kids, this was no temporary setback. This was life, dragging belongings from one place to the next, tethered to problems they didn’t create.

Anthony and Jordan took to the carpet for a wrestling match while Salgado sat on the edge of one bed, brushing Madelyn’s hair as her daughter smiled appreciatively. I noticed a case of instant noodles on the dresser, next to a 7-Eleven pizza box. Sometimes, Salgado said, dinner comes from McDonald’s or KFC, which are within walking distance from the motel.

“Guys, stop,” Salgado urged the two wrestlers. “Do you know how dirty these floors are?”

Anthony, 9, brushes his teeth as Salgado, grooms his hair. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Madelyn, 5, left, eats noodles from a cup as her mother, Brenda Salgado, brushes her hair before heading to Telfair Elementary School. Baby sister Mayla plays on the bed. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Brenda Salgado gets her children, Anthony, 9, left, and Madelyn, right, ready for school at Telfair Elementary. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Brenda Salgado walks with her children
Jordan, 6, from rear, and Anthony follow their mother, Brenda Salgado, and sister Mayla from the motel to catch a ride to school. Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

If the kids were going to make it to school on time, they needed to leave soon. By 7:30, their ride had not arrived. Salgado has no car, and said she had several people she relied on. She began dialing for a backup driver while Anthony complained that his backpack was left behind when they made their last move.

“Can you take them?” Salgado said into her phone.

Mayla managed to lower herself to the floor while no one was watching. She slid down a corner of the bed as if she were rappelling, then got rolled up in the tangled limbs of her brothers. Salgado told the boys to knock it off before somebody got hurt.

Madelyn grew jumpy as she waited for her ride. The kids generally eat breakfast at school, but she didn’t appear to be counting on it this particular day. She grabbed a slice of pepperoni out of the 7-Eleven pizza box and popped it into the microwave. On the first bite, the cheese burned her mouth and she winced.

The clock struck 7:40, 7:45, 7:50.

Still no ride.

I’d been to Telfair before, and I had gotten to know the principal and some teachers. I knew that nearly a quarter of the students were classified as homeless last year. I knew about the burden that puts on the students, the teachers, the school, the district. Salgado’s kids began their education at a disadvantage, and showing up to school late wasn’t going to help.

I offered to take them, but just before 8, their uncle arrived.

When the car turned out of the lot, the morning stress subsided, giving way to melancholy. Brenda Salgado sat on a bed holding her toddler, the two of them holed up for another day. Salgado told me she had been regularly abused by a parent and landed in juvenile hall and rehab. She imagined a better life for her kids, but that was more a dream than a plan, and even some of her friends wondered why she kept having kids before she had something to stand on.

Now she was 29, with no job, no credit, no escape. The kids’ father was helping, but Salgado said he had his own problems. She told me the kids were doing OK, considering. But they all insisted on sleeping with her at night, leaving one bed empty, probably because they feared being removed from her care as they have been in the past.

Salgado said her oldest boy was more aware than the others that this is not how childhood is supposed to be.

“He’s angry and depressed,” Salgado said. “He just wants somewhere to call home.”

Brenda Salgado holds her daughter
Brenda Salgado says she imagined a better life for Mayla and her other children. At 29, Salgado has no job, no credit and no escape plan. Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Unified, the second-largest public school system in the country, is more than a sprawling collection of campuses — it’s one of the nation’s largest depositories of child poverty. About 80% of the more than 600,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. When I heard from Supt. Austin Beutner that nearly a quarter of the students at Telfair last year were classified as homeless, I began visiting the school and the neighborhood, hoping to give some human shape to the numbers.

You don’t see sprawling tent villages on the streets around Telfair, and there’s little of the squalor so starkly evident on skid row and elsewhere. Poverty is quieter here. It lives indoors for the most part. To an extent, it’s hidden in the fabric of the suburban design, and for all the focus on homeless encampments in Los Angeles, far more people cope with cramped, inadequate, barely affordable housing.

Like I said, appearances can be deceiving. Rows of small stucco houses line the streets near Telfair, where the median household income hits the county average of about $54,000, and you can still buy a home for less than $500,000.

But the neighborhood has changed dramatically over the decades, said fifth-grade teacher Sandra Tejeda, a former Telfair student who has taught there for 29 years. Tejeda still lives down the street from the school in the house she grew up in.

“Oh my goodness, things were beautiful,” Tejeda told me as we sat in her classroom after school one day. “People had front lawns, everybody owned their house, we knew who was in each house and we knew we were safe.”

“It used to be single families... Now you see multiple families in a home, in a garage, in makeshift shanties.”

Gricelda Gutierrez, teacher at Telfair Elementary

Now, Tejeda said, you see vehicles parked in some yards where gardens once thrived, and small villages of people live on some properties.

“It used to be single families,” said first-grade teacher Gricelda Gutierrez, another former Telfair student who stopped by Tejeda’s class to join our conversation. “Now you see multiple families in a home, in a garage, in makeshift shanties.”

So what drove the change?

More poverty. More renters. Fewer good jobs.

Tejeda’s father worked at the General Motors plant in Van Nuys. In August 1992, the last car — a red Chevy Camaro — rolled off the assembly line where 6 million cars had been produced in 45 years.

The following year, The Times ran a story about the death of blue- and white-collar jobs in San Fernando Valley’s once soaring aerospace industry. Hughes Aircraft, Litton Industries, Northrop, Rocketdyne and Lockheed Martin were scaling back or closing altogether. In good times, Pacoima residents didn’t have to work at those places to benefit from the money those jobs sent rippling through the local economy.

Just up the street from Telfair, hundreds of union jobs were lost in 1997 when Price Pfister, a kitchen faucet manufacturer, moved production to Mexico. I spent a week looking for a former Price Pfister employee, and one day I found a guy named Emilio Servin, who participated in a 10-day hunger strike in 1997, seated on the front porch of his home in Sylmar.

“I found another job within a week,” said Servin, 64, who became a driver for a Van Nuys auto dealership after losing his Price Pfister job. But he said he got nicked in the process, going from nearly $12 an hour to just above $7.

“We rented out a bedroom of our house to make up the difference,” Servin said. His daughter, Elizabeth, recalled that after Price Pfister closed, the family shopped for clothes at flea markets instead of stores.

Today, a Lowe’s home improvement center stands on the spot where Price Pfister made its faucets.

Lowe’s sells Pfister faucets.

Made in Mexico.

The evaporation of solid jobs by the thousands was not exclusive to the Valley — it staggered the entire region, and many of the poorest communities have never recovered. The emerging service economy had jobs for the taking, but the wages were lower, even as housing costs rose, and rose, and kept on rising.

It’s not as if renting homes and rooms is brand new in the northeast San Fernando Valley. And for some in predominantly Latino Telfair boundaries, where nearly half the residents were born in another country, according to census figures, living with extended family can be a cultural preference as well as an economic necessity. But given the decades-long decline of solid jobs, the house-sharing industry has boomed.

“You wouldn’t believe how many people call me each day and ask, ‘Can I see the bedroom, can I bring my husband, can I bring my kids?’” said local real estate agent Gilmer Pozo.

“I’ve got this friend who bought a four-bedroom house near here,” Pozo said. “He rents each bedroom for $750, and it’s $900 for the bedroom with a bathroom. For the garage, he gets $1,500.”

Brenda Salgado cleans up the bathroom area while Madelyn, left, Jordan, center, and Anthony play around. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Madelyn, left, and her sister Mayla horse around. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Madelyn opens a cup of instant noodles to prepare it for breakfast before school. The 5-year-old has been living in hotel rooms since she was 1, Salgado says. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Brenda Salgado cleans up the bathroom area as her children play in the motel room. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

At Telfair, I asked to see the breakdown on the school’s 182 students who did not have homes of their own. Fifty-four percent lived “in another family’s house or apartment.” Thirty-one percent lived in rented garages. Eight percent lived in motels, shelters, vehicles or campsites. Another 7% had unspecified “other” arrangements.

It seemed to me that a garage, while certainly not ideal, would have been a better and cheaper option for Brenda Salgado and her kids. But with no credit and no money for a down payment, she was trapped in the more expensive motel.

After my visit with her, she moved to a different motel that was slightly cheaper, then returned to another unit in the first motel.

One evening, I visited again. Anthony and Jordan were having a pillow fight on one bed. The children’s father had dropped by, and he had a bandage on the crease of his left arm. He said he had a job in a warehouse but work was unsteady, so he had begun selling his plasma at a clinic in Van Nuys.

I’d heard at Telfair that the kids were falling behind, and Salgado told me they had missed nearly an entire week. They all had scabies, which they may have picked up in one of the motel rooms.

Housekeeping had not cleaned the room, so Brenda Salgado dampened a white hand towel and began wiping the sink and the dresser and tidying up packaged foods and clothing, as if this were a home.

Jordan tosses football at motel
Jordan tosses a football at the motel. The 6-year-old and his siblings don't always make it to school because their mother doesn't have a car and relies on family or friends for transportation, which isn't reliable. Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

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Produced by Jessica Perez

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