La Opinión, News Report By Yurina Rico, Translated by Suzanne Manneh, Posted: Feb 07, 2009 [from New American Media]
LOS ANGELES — It's been a month since Carla, who is 10 and in fifth grade, and her mother, Emilia Villalta, moved their beds into a friend’s garage in Panorama City. While Emilia looks for a permanent place to live, Carla continues to attend school.
The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) estimates that there are more than 12,000 students like Carla, who are classified as "homeless" because they have no permanent housing.
“For the LAUSD, a homeless person is not only classified as a person who sleeps in the streets or in shelters. Homeless are also people who don't have a place of their own and stay temporarily with a family member or a friend, living in a room, garage, or in a car parked outside their home,” said Melissa Schoonmaker, who oversees the educational program for LAUSD homeless students.
According to school district surveys, the number of students who are in extreme poverty has increased by 50 percent in the last three years. The areas affected most are San Fernando Valley, East Los Angeles and South Central Los Angeles.
According to data disclosed by Superintendent Jack O'Conell, the number of students in this situation has increased by 19 percent during the 2006-2007 school year.
"We know that the amount [of homeless students] is growing rapidly. Hunger has also increased. Our schools served over 28 million free lunches during the 2007-2008 term. Historically, subsidized lunches have increased by 1 percent per year. Between September 2007 and September 2008 the number increased by 12 percent," said O'Conell.
Carla and other students in her situation eat at school not only because they qualify for free lunch, but because their mothers have nowhere to cook.
"When we lived in a one-room trailer [a mobile home], it was worse because it was very cold and the girl was sick ... and I had nowhere to cook," said Emilia.
Public schools conduct surveys every year of all students to try to identify who is at risk of dropping out.
Schoonmaker said that the 75 percent of students living in poverty do not live in the streets and that 50 percent of them live in hotels, motels or shelters.
"The economic crisis is affecting families tremendously. Now we see people losing their housing and being forced to find a temporary place to live. These people fall into the poverty-stricken category," Schoonmaker stressed.
LAUSD provides vouchers for clothing, free transportation if needed, school supplies and any other service that enables the student to stay in school.
"We want to help all children who are in an unstable housing situation. For some families, this is painful and in some cases, is hidden by those living in garages or in their cars," said Schoonmaker, who invited parents to come to school to get help.
The LAUSD has five counselors who work directly with students and their parents.
Anyone experiencing a difficult economic situation can visit a school parent center and speak with a counselor.
The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) also provides vouchers for hotels or motels to families who have lost their homes.
Rebecca Isaac, LAHSA Director, said that she has seen an increase in the number of families seeking assistance at public shelters since the middle of last year.
"We try to lift families from shelters in Skid Row--it is not an appropriate place for children. The others take shelter outside the downtown Los Angeles area or stay in hotels," said Isaac.
LAUSD offers a transportation program to take students living in shelters to their schools.
"We try to keep them in the same school because that's where their friends and teachers are. But if it isn't feasible because it's two or more hours away from where they're staying, we try to accommodate them in schools closer to where they are living temporarily," Schoonmaker said.
"School is the most stable place for students in extreme poverty. We can't let them drop out," she added.