It’s 5 a.m. at a small transitional shelter near South La Brea Avenue in mid-city Los Angeles. In the common area, a television quietly broadcasts the weather report as Quantrell and Derendo fill out their departure times in a log. Still tired, they walk out the door and head to school under the brownish-orange sky of nighttime L.A.
The two boys, ages 17 and 13, live in the shelter with their mother, but they haven’t transferred from the schools they attended before they became homeless. Those schools are about 15 miles south of their new housing, closer to Long Beach, in the city of Paramount. Under federal law, when children become homeless and are forced to move to a different district, they are still permitted to attend their original school. To make that work, Quantrell and Derendo will travel nearly two and a half hours to school – once in the morning, and again in the afternoon.
Their plight is more common than one might think. Getting to school is a major challenge for many of the 1.6 million homeless children in the United States, as they move from shelter to shelter, and district to district. Here in sprawling Los Angeles, homeless children must cope with a disjointed public transportation system as well. Some, like Quantrell and Derendo, awake as early as 4 a.m. to ride buses and rails just to make it to school by the bell.
It’s all worth it to Quantrell. At 17, he’s been to more than 13 schools that he can recall. Despite moving around so much, he’s been enrolled in Paramount High School since ninth grade; he’s now a junior.
“I like the school, I have more experience with the school than any other school,” he said. “I just wanna keep that feeling, so I wanna stay at Paramount, instead of going to a different high school.”
Becoming homeless can be traumatic, especially for children. A foreclosure or eviction can force a family out of its home and into a shelter full of strangers. Schools are one of the few places that can help maintain a sense of normalcy.
Sinead Chilton, marketing director at School on Wheels, a nonprofit organization that matches volunteer tutors with homeless children, said continuity is key.
“Statistics show that children who stay in their school of origin – their grades are better, they have more stability, it helps the kids to not have the reactions they would have if everything were brand new.”
Chilton said the stresses of being homeless can lead kids to miss school, fall back on homework, and spiral into a cycle of underachievement.
“It’s very easy to go, ‘So much is happening in our lives, the kids don’t have to go to school today, stay home,’” she said. “And from that, the kids start falling behind in school and then the gaps start getting bigger between the kids that aren’t in a homeless situation and the kids that are.”
Quantrell, Derendo and their mother, LaTanya, became homeless after LaTanya was in two car accidents and lost her retail job. LaTanya turned to the closest emergency service provider she could find – Long Beach Homeless Multiservice Center – and they sent her to the faith-based Union Rescue Mission on L.A.’s Skid Row. Long Beach, apparently, didn’t have any homeless resources for her family.
“Here in L.A. we’ve got hundreds of programs scattered all over the county, and understanding where we have availability is very challenging,” said Mike Arnold, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Arnold said 70 percent of the homeless services in Los Angeles are faith-based or philanthropically based. That means they’re not mandated to have any communication with the city, so, there is no centralized database of all the resources available.
Arnold is in the process of implementing a central database for the county of Los Angeles, called a Homeless Management Intake System. He said it will help the balkanized system of homeless providers work together more efficiently.
“So if a family comes to me, and I happen to be in Van Nuys and the family is from Baldwin Hills, the goal is to be able to look at this occupancy dashboard, identify facilities in the community, and triage families back into those available beds and units,” he said.
With such a system, it might be possible that the provider who helped this family could have found a shelter closer to their home community. But there are doubts about technical functionality of the system and participation of many providers is voluntary. Plus, it won’t solve a core problem: a lack of beds. Currently, there is only one shelter bed for every three people who need one in L.A. County.
“I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon,” Chilton said. “I think that there are going to be less shelters, the money is running out, cities and counties don’t have the funding to provide adequate shelter for emergency housing.”
So she said she believes children and families will be moving to different districts where there is housing available – and making difficult decisions about long commutes – for some time.
“Everything is pro and con,” Chilton said. “You’ve got to weigh it up – going to a new school and the commute is 10 minutes, or stay in the same school and your commute is two hours.”
For Quantrell and Derendo, the choice is clear. Before the Rescue Mission moved the family to their current location, they were living on Skid Row – at least half an hour closer to their schools in Paramount. Still, the two of them seem to take it in stride.
“It was easier from downtown. It’s easy here too,” Quantrell said.
They don’t mind the ride? Does it make a difference in the school day?
“To me it doesn’t. I get all my sleep on the bus and the train and then usually I be hyper when I get off,” he said.
The boys board school buses outside their old apartment complex in Paramount, two hours after the trip started and just as the sun is coming up. When the final bell rings, they’ll do it all in reverse, getting home as the sun goes down.
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