Must Reads: Whether home is a van, a motel or a garage, L.A.’s suburban poor children learn to survive

Jesus Rosales finds a quiet spot to do math homework outside his crowded home in Pacoima. The 11-year-old is a fifth-grader at Telfair Elementary School.
Jesus Rosales finds a quiet spot to do math homework outside his crowded home in Pacoima. The 11-year-old is a fifth-grader at Telfair Elementary School.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“There it is,” Yolanda Vasquez said, pointing to the converted garage she and her family of six lived in for four years.

We stood on Kewen Avenue, a block from Telfair Elementary School. Vasquez was giving me a tour of her old neighborhood on a blistering September afternoon before picking up her daughter, Ammy, a third-grader.

“I have one son diagnosed with autism, and it was difficult to be in such a small space,” said Vasquez, who paid $1,175 a month for the garage but finally found a roomier rental in Northridge a couple of years ago for $1,500.

The garage, tan-colored with red trim, was attached to a stucco house with a yard. It had a bathroom but no kitchen, and Vasquez said she used to cook on a hot plate.

Clothing was draped over the fence that borders the property, a common sight in a neighborhood where people push food carts and sell whatever they can to pay bills. A hulking old trailer with faded paint was parked on the street, and I wondered if someone was living in it, knowing that in L.A. Unified, with more than 15,000 students classified as homeless, some live in rolling homes.

A man with one leg amputated at the knee emerged from the garage, hobbling along on a wooden peg, wondering what we were doing there. I told him Vasquez had once lived in the garage and he nodded. I asked about his leg and he said he was riding his bike, got hit by a car and lost his job. At the hospital, he got a prosthetic limb that has since cracked.

It was something of a metaphor, you could say. People get by in Los Angeles. They make do.

Beyond the tree-shaded comforts of suburban living, miles from the 20,000-square-foot mansions, the hilltop castles, the Rain Bird-sucking lawns, the $40,000 private schools, the gated glory and the daily symphony of leaf blowers, L.A. residents by the thousands live in motels, vehicles, shelters, shared homes and 400-square-foot garages.

The things I heard as a kid, and repeated to my own kids, don’t apply for a lot of L.A.’s public school students. There is no quiet place to do homework. There is no private space without distraction. Los Angeles kids, like their parents, make do.

When I was growing up, a garage was where you parked your car and kept your lawn mower, motor oil and tools, rather than where you cooked dinner, slept and dressed for school. In my day, a few families converted their garages into what were called rumpus rooms, but I don’t recall anyone renting out garages as mini-apartments.

Such conversions have been happening in Los Angeles for at least a few decades, but teachers at Telfair who grew up in the neighborhood say living in garages is more common now. If the statistics are accurate, about 60 of Telfair’s more than 700 students went to sleep in garages last year. This year’s count is still being tallied.

Vasquez and I walked back up Kewen Avenue to Telfair, where more parents were arriving to pick up their kids at the 2:23 p.m. bell. Marisol arrived in a black pickup and said she lives in a small house nearby with her in-laws. It’s cramped, she said. She and her husband sleep in the living room.

Three more women arrived and said in Spanish that they live in nearby garages, but they didn’t care to share the details. A woman named Alejandra was more comfortable with me and my questions. She said she and her two kids live in a garage and I could visit if I wanted to.

“This is it,” Alejandra said when I arrived the next morning.

A tiny kitchen was set off from the main living area. On the way to a small bedroom with bunk beds, I passed a bathroom. There was little natural light, but the walls were plastered and painted, and caged parrots chirped. The washing machine was outside.

“It’s $900 a month,” Alejandra said. Her husband no longer lives there but works in construction and pays the rent, plus a little more, she said. A chicken was boiling on the stove, and the garage smelled like soup.

Alejandra said it wasn’t much, but it worked for her and the kids. It was better than what she had in Mexico, she said, and Telfair offered a better education than her kids could have gotten south of the border. The daily routine is school and homework. They go to Ritchie Valens Park on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and the library on Van Nuys Boulevard. It’s a life.

When I asked where her son does his homework, Alejandra pointed to a weight-lifting bench pushed against a table in the corner of what in a different time was a garage, not a home.

“I feel like a failure... It’s not a good thing to have had my kids up and down, from one place to another, as soon as they walked.”

— Blanca, mother of five

I’ve written about people living in cars who told me they felt lucky, because it could have been worse. From that perspective, you can argue that people living in converted garages are in better shape than many others.

“We have roughly 200 families in crisis- or interim-housing right now. That could mean a temporary shelter, it could be a motel,” said Dan Parziale, senior director of housing navigation for the San Fernando Valley-based nonprofit L.A. Family Housing.

That was the agency that helped Yolanda Vasquez finally get out of the garage, but the demand for stable, affordable housing always exceeds the supply. Families account for about 15% of L.A.’s 50,000-plus homeless people, according to L.A. Family Housing. Parziale and his boss, Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, told me they had so many clients shuffling through different motels along Sepulveda Boulevard and elsewhere in the Valley, they leased an entire 19-room inn on San Fernando Road to better manage their cases while trying to find better housing options.

The motel is about a mile from Telfair Elementary and looks like a place a trucker on a tight budget might stop at to take a break from a long haul. On the day I visited, a woman named Blanca invited me into the room she shares with her husband and five children. It was not quite as large a space as Alejandra’s garage, but it had a bathroom, along with access to a common kitchen.

“Oh my God, I don’t have words,” Blanca said. “It’s wonderful, to be honest with you, to not have to pack and unpack every day.”

Blanca, 31, top, serves dinner to her sons Marcos, 7, center, and Israel, 9, after preparing it with Marcos by her side, above left, at a motel on San Fernando Road. Blanca's daughter Sophia, 4, above right, takes a sip of a soft drink. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

She said the family was on the move for years, surviving on food giveaways at churches, crushed by housing costs they could barely afford despite her former job as a Sears clerk and her husband’s gardening job. Now they were close, it appeared, to getting an apartment with the help of L.A. Family Housing.

It was achingly clear that Blanca was worn out by her family’s odyssey and wanted to say more than she already had, but she couldn’t speak up in the presence of the kids. When they stepped outside the room and into the motel parking lot, she visited her own childhood.

She said her father was murdered, and her mother was an addict. Blanca so feared for her mother’s safety that she would insist on going on her mom’s drug runs, in the middle of the night, to shepherd her back home. Blanca said she was sent to live with relatives for a while, and that brought new horrors. She said she was sexually abused regularly.

“I feel like a failure,” she said, tears coming up as she spoke again of her children. “It’s not right. It’s not a good thing to have had my kids up and down, from one place to another, as soon as they walked.”

They’ve had to switch schools, say goodbye to friends and teachers, and another move was approaching — this one to the south side of the city.

“The teachers tell me they’re behind,” Blanca said.

A few months ago, Blanca posted something about her situation on Facebook. She took some jabs from people wondering why she had so many kids she couldn’t afford to provide for.

Such judgments are easy to make from a distance. But in the aftermath of a traumatic childhood and in the clutches of corrosive poverty, decisions can become fogged by a thousand factors, including a yearning to be loved.

“I would never regret my children,” said Blanca, who also heard from a few people who wanted to help.

Rochelle Edwards-Gilbert, manager at Fabrocini’s Italian Kitchen in Tarzana, posted on Facebook that she would give Blanca free pizza.

“There’s a lot of negativity about homeless people using drugs and vandalizing, but she didn’t appear to be one of those,” said Edwards-Gilbert. “They came to get the pizza in the van and it was all broken down, with all the kids in there. It was sad.”

Edwards-Gilbert kept in touch and gave Blanca’s daughter a stuffed animal on her birthday. Others got involved, too, including L.A. Police Department Senior Lead Officer Duc Dao, who heard the family was living in a van at a local park. Dao bought a birthday cake and delivered it to a motel where Blanca’s family was staying, and he helped the family connect with L.A. Family Housing.

“I look at it this way: It’s hard enough right now, that we’re going through this,” Blanca told me. “But it was worse before, if you understand what I’m trying to say.”

Late one afternoon, outside the garage where Yolanda Vasquez used to live, I introduced myself to sisters Christina and Wendy Urquilla and told them I was working on stories about the high number of Telfair students living in less-than-ideal conditions.

They invited me into the garage without hesitation.

The man with the amputated leg was asleep in one of the beds, which took up most of the space. A wheelchair, a German shepherd, a fan, a guitar and trash bags full of what appeared to be clothing nearly took up the rest of the room.

Christina and Wendy said they pay $1,500 for the garage. They have access to the kitchen in the house, which is rented by members of their extended family.

Two adults and three kids sleep in the garage. I asked 15-year-old Samantha, a San Fernando High School student, where she does her homework. She pointed to her bed. Her younger brother lounged on the bottom level of a bunk bed. He ignored my question about homework and one of the adults said he had a learning disability.

Christina eyed me, as if awaiting my assessment of their predicament. And then she offered her own appraisal.

“This,” she said, “is a life of poverty.”

Telfair does not have a psychiatric social worker, but a roving mental-health specialist sometimes uses a desk in the office. I spotted her going over some paperwork one day and asked what kinds of issues are common among L.A. Unified students.

“Depression, PTSD, anxiety, autism and ADHD,” she said. “Mood disorders, irritability, sleeping difficulty, disruptive behavior.”

And what are the causes?

“Trauma. Housing issues. Divorce. Homelessness. Abuse. Harsh economic reality.”

Regarding the latter: “Out of my 28 students, I’d say probably 26 families are living paycheck to paycheck,” said Maria Alvarez, who teaches fifth-grade at Telfair.

“Last year I had a student, the friendliest child you will meet, and I noticed he started getting very distracted … and wasn’t bringing in his homework,” said Alvarez. “He always brought in a phone and asked if he could charge it here. It was a strange pattern, every day. I asked if everything was OK and he said, ‘We don’t have electricity.’ Here I was worried about his homework, and he doesn’t even have electricity.”

“This is a life of poverty.”

— Christina Urquilla, lives in a garage

Some parents work hard to compensate for the hardships that sabotage success in school. Yolanda Vasquez helped start the Telfair PTA – Friends of the Little Tigers. She attended adult parenting and English classes at Telfair. She volunteers for everything, which reminds Principal Jose Razo of his own mother, who demanded that he did well in school and that his educators did their best too.

When they lived in the garage, Vasquez told me, she gave her four kids a 15-minute break after school, then it was time for homework. There was no desk in the garage, so they sat on the floor.

In their new home, sometimes there’s no money left after they pay the $1,500 rent, depending on how much work she and the kids’ father can get. Vasquez, who cleans houses, said she checks with churches and community groups to see if they have leftovers from their events.

They make do. They get by.

The day I met Vasquez, I went to see her daughter Ammy’s teacher after school.

“We have a lot of conversations about life, and about how they feel,” said Maria Mancilla, who told me she has counseled students who lost loved ones to tragedy, or who were distraught over losing siblings who were put up for adoption.

I asked her how Ammy was doing and Mancilla fawned.

“Ammy is a bright, bright girl,” she said. “We just had tests and she had the highest scores on math and science. I don’t know how she does it.”

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Produced by Jessica Perez

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