A homeless count last week in Los Angeles likely missed many children under five who are often hidden from view and yet are among the most impacted by their homelessness.
In L.A. County, there is no accurate count on the number of homeless children under 5, according to Melissa Schoonmaker, the homeless education consultant at the county's Office of Education. Most don’t live on the streets or end up in the shelter system where they can be accounted for, she said. Instead, they are often shuttled among homes of relatives and friends.
Schoonmaker's data, gathered from official public school enrollment information, show that almost 10 percent of the county’s homeless children are kindergarteners or younger. But she is sure the numbers are much higher because officials can only count children registered in public school, be that for kindergarten, preschool or Early Head Start. Many children who are homeless are not attending those classes.
While the county's education office helps school districts meet the learning needs of young homeless children, Schoonmaker said this population has many more challenges. “We also know they have a lot of health issues and lot of them have developmental delays,” she said.
In the classroom
Yanira Mayora Rodriguez has taught preschool and Early Head Start in the Pomona Unified School District for eight years. During that time, she’s seen her share of homeless students, including some currently in her class.
Rodriguez’ students fit the typical “doubling up” definition of homeless.
“Parents don’t have a job so they move to aunty. Aunty gets tired so they move to grandma. Grandma gets tired so they move to uncle. Uncle gets tired so they move to sister,” she said.
In Los Angeles County, 82 percent of homeless children live this way, according to the county's Office of Education. It may not sound so troubling — perhaps it's pleasant for children to get acquainted with extended family. But Rodriguez said this isn't the case.
“Anytime a child is moved it can feel to that child like a death because it’s so traumatic.”
She has seen how homelessness impacts the children in her classroom.
“It makes it hard for those children to make connections with other children, because they’re not worried about, 'Are you going to play with me?' They’re worried about, 'Where am I going to sleep?'” Rodriguez said.
She said young children cannot articulate what they are feeling so they either withdraw completely or act out.
One family tries to cope
(Caption: Maya McCoy once worked as a trained dancer. This week, she returns to the dance studio to take a class after a 10-year hiatus from dance. Photo by Susanica Tam for KPCC)
Mayah McCoy, an actress and singer, had the perfect life. “I got blessed with a wonderful family,” she said. “I basically married my best friend and I have two boys.”
The family lived in a two-bedroom Hawthorne apartment with a huge lawn for the kids to play on. They were saving for their own home.
McCoy’s resume includes movies such as "She’s All That" and "The Josephine Baker Story." Her husband, Justin Silas, had a good job with PepsiCo.
Everything changed two years ago. After a date night, the couple were riding home in the backseat of a car when they got into a major accident. While the driver escaped with minimal injuries, McCoy and Silas sustained serious injuries when they were ejected out of the car and fell down an embankment.
“Waking up on the embankment, I walked down to find my husband, face-down, not moving, and I’m thinking, 'He’s dead,'” she said.
Silas survived. But their injuries put them out of work and both ended up losing their jobs. With no health insurance, the bills started piling up. Three months after the accident, they were evicted from their home.
As they dealt with their own injuries, Silas said, they were constantly aware of their priority: “We have two children that still need a lot of attention.”
After eviction, the family slept in cars and bounced between relatives' homes. McCoy was grateful for the couches to sleep on, and she didn’t want her family to be a burden. McCoy cooked for the host-family and Silas cleaned the house. They kept the kids out at playgrounds until it was time to return home and sleep. They even tried splitting up so the kids could have housing.
“We were trying to have [Justin’s] mother take care of them while we slept in the back of her truck at night,” McCoy said. But the welcome would always wear out.
The family then bounced between motels until there was not a cent left to pay.
During this ordeal, the impact on the children began to show. As much as McCoy and her husband tried to shield their two little boys from the hardship, there was no masking the fact that they had lost everything and had no home. Her older son acted out.
“In school, he would be very rebellious,” McCoy said. The behavior was new. “He was the number one helper [before], he was the kid who loved school.”
Her then two-year-old, Justice, became very clingy. At three, he started begging to go to school. But the family was moving so much it was impossible to find a program that would take him. Justice cried a lot and couldn't stand it when people around him argued.
Experts say the behavior is typical in small children who are homeless. Barbara Duffield, policy director at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, said homeless children under five years old can be traumatized by the lack of stable housing.
“Homelessness has an impact on children that is over and above poverty,” she said.
The Department of Health and Human Services has compared kids in Head Start programs, all of whom are living below the poverty line, and homeless children fared the worst.
“They have higher rates of chronic and acute illnesses, more trauma, more social emotional difficulties, more learning difficulties, because homelessness is poverty coupled with great, great instability,” Duffield said.
She said that sometimes homeless children spend a lot of time strapped into car seats going from place to place as their parents scramble to find help. It’s the opposite of what young developing children need, she said.
“Not only are they not interacting [with others], but physically they are not moving around,” she said.
According to the latest Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress with data from 2012, the age at which a person is most likely to be found in a homeless shelter is infancy.
“If you don’t know where you are going to put your baby to sleep each night, and you don’t know which adults are coming in and out of that setting. That creates a big challenge for parent-child development and for a child’s attachments to adults,” Duffield said.
The report found the typical profile of a homeless person in the U.S. was a black child who had been in an emergency shelter for at least 28 days. The same report found children under five years of age constituted over half of all children in federally-funded homeless shelters nationwide.
Finding some stability
(Caption: Mayah McCoy stays with her two sons in their room in the L.A. Family Housing complex in North Hollywood, a homeless shelter that helps families who would otherwise be on the streets. Photo by Susanica Tam for KPCC)
As Mayah McCoy wondered what would happen to her family, she made one last call to 211 begging for assistance. She was referred to an organization called the L.A. Family Housing, which offers individual and family accommodations for people who would otherwise be living on the streets.
“When we first got here, we didn’t want to be here,” McCoy said. ”But as we’ve come to stay here, this has become the best place for us to be now.”
Their room is clean, spartan, with a few math and letter charts stuck on the bare white walls. There are four beds and a four large plastic containers, one for each family member, holding their possessions.
The shelter serves individuals and families from the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys. Kris Freed runs programs there and said the shelter served 442 families last year. That included around 900 kids, about half under 5 years old.
On a recent Monday evening, kids scampered through the shelter. One tot carried a striped ball, and mothers pushed babies in strollers. Freed has an easy rapport with the kids.
“I hold quite a few babies here,” she said. “And we see a lot of these little kids grow up while they’re with us or over the years while we’re doing follow up.”
For her part, McCoy is doing her best to stay positive as she is keenly aware that this is a critical time of development for her sons. So despite living in a shelter and trading her acting career for a city bus driver job, McCoy still wants her sons to thrive.
"So you take what you have and you put the extra attention, the extra effort and the extra love towards [them], because if you're not there actively as a parent, just because of what you have going on..." She trails off. "You make it happen," McCoy concludes.