The line of students who walk the few blocks from Western Avenue Elementary keeps getting longer. Only a year ago, it was just a handful who ventured once a week to the South Los Angeles Learning Center, an afterschool program for homeless children in a tiny strip mall.
Now, it’s more than a dozen, five days a week.
On this afternoon, the kids are rowdy and restless. They chomp on chips and grapes, sip punch and chatter. The noise ricochets through the cramped classroom, but Charles Evans, the man who runs the place for School on Wheels, hones in on Jeanquis. The first-grader in a stained white shirt is reading aloud.
Above the din, Evans is caught off guard. Jeanquis reminds him of how quickly the center has grown. Just six months ago, Evans made all the students read aloud. It was the only way he could be sure they were actually reading.
Now, the words of “Green Eggs and Ham” uttered in Jeanquis’ raspy little voice barely register in the roomful of students who need a place to go after school until their shelter opens for the night.
As jobs are lost, houses are foreclosed and tenants are evicted, more families are being pushed into shelters, motels, even cars.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest, nearly 13,500 students were identified as homeless in the 2009-10 school year, records show, a 53% increase from five years ago. The increase reflects more accurate information gathering as well increasing poverty, the district says.
The programs attempting to help the children in these situations, like School on Wheels, face a sad dilemma: The same difficult economic times that create the need for such services also cause them to struggle financially.
School on Wheels, the nonprofit that runs the South L.A. Learning Center and serves more than 6,000 homeless youths each year, is bracing for its budget of about $800,000 to shrink as homelessness among families expands at an unprecedented rate, said Catherine Meek, its executive director.
School on Wheels solicits and trains hundreds of volunteers who provide one-on-one tutoring for homeless students in the Los Angeles area. They work in parks, libraries and other public places as well as in the storefront in South L.A. and one on Skid Row.
Homeless children tend to be four to six months behind their classmates, Meek said. They move around constantly, depending on shelter openings and whether family members can take them in. L.A. Unified tries to keep them in the same schools, even offering transportation to help get them there.
School on Wheels and the district’s programs work to keep school “a point of stability,” said Melissa Schoonmaker, L.A. Unified’s coordinator of pupil services and attendance.
High school became the one steady place for Angela Sanchez when a swirl of bad fortune uprooted her family. When she was 16, her family was evicted from the home she grew up in. Her mother had been sick and her father, an architect, lost his job.
Like many newly homeless families, they hopped from motel to motel. The money ran out and they wound up in a cold-weather shelter. “It was terrible,” she said, recalling a huge, harshly lighted hall of stiff cots where men, women and children bunked together.
The family finally found a spot in a more hospitable family shelter in Pasadena. Yet her father continued to take her to school in Glendale, where she kept up her grades. (“My father saw to that,” she said.)
Sanchez had ambitions of going to UCLA and becoming a teacher, but those dreams began to falter.
“Your motivation starts to wane,” Sanchez said. “College does start to look like a bunch of smiling faces on a pamphlet.”
But Sanchez made it to UCLA, where she’s in her second year and has enough credits to be a junior.
Meek called Sanchez the outlier among School on Wheels students. For most, tutors measure success in much more rudimentary terms: “A kid does his homework for a month or his grades improve.”
Achieving that requires trust, she said. Meek recalled one of the first children she mentored: a young girl who was soon abandoned by her mother. She wouldn’t come out from under a table in the shelter. Meek climbed under and sat with her.
A bond had to form, Meek said, before studies were even a concern.
“Education is not on the top of your list,” she said of homeless students. “It’s about survival.”
Moreover, the older students tend to hide their homelessness, making it harder for programs to find and help them. “They don’t want to be identified,” said Blue McDonald, regional director of School on Wheels for West L.A. “It’s shameful for them.”
The younger children at the South L.A. center aren’t embarrassed. They are simply aware, even in their young age, that their lives are different from those of their classmates.
They awake at 5 a.m., which is why they are dragging once the afternoon rolls around. Stephen, 6, falls asleep after snack time, his fruit punch-stained mouth hanging open as his head rests on a table.
Their dreams are more grounded and practical than those of others their age. Chiaw Yongpang, a volunteer at the South L.A. Learning Center, said she asked them what they hoped Santa would bring or what they want for a birthday.
A car for their family, they reply.
Or, the ultimate gift: permanent housing.
As the afternoon sky outside the burglar bars fades to shades of purple and orange, Evans tells the students at the South L.A. center to pack up. He nudges a bleary-eyed Stephen to wake up. The rest line up outside — jackets finally zipped, their School on Wheels backpacks in place — and they’re off, accompanied by two adults from the center.
They pass the abandoned storefronts and the 98-cent store where they eye the toy lightsabers on sale, scurry across five lanes of Western Avenue traffic and give wide berth to the guard dog at an empty lot sticking his nose through a chain-link fence. They finally arrive at the dormitory of the Testimonial Cathedral shelter they now consider home.
Just in time for dinner.