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Homeless Children: The New Outcasts

Black Voice News , News Report, Chris Levister Posted: Dec 15, 2008

Its one of those balmy December nights in San Bernardino but dont tell that to 10-year-old Gatlin Andrews and his two young sisters crowded together on the backseat of the familys 2003 Saturn car. The children are dressed in hats, mufflers and warm coats.

We sleep in our coats, says Gatlin, who claims he keeps warm by dancing around the car. Gatlin who calls himself a Wii Game Guitar Hero (a popular kids video game) is in reality cold, hungry, homeless and angry. He is the face of Americas new outcasts.

I dont really like living in a car, Its pretty scary, he said.

On this night the children and their mother Elanda were turned away from an overflowing shelter nearby. They are according to San Bernardino and Riverside Countys school officials among the almost 26,000 students either homeless or close to it.

The girls sing and laugh as Ms. Andrews wearing a blue coat and pink sweatshirt that reads Yes We Can takes turns platting their hair.

Like many of their homeless classmates these children jump from school to school, falling behind, dropping out and often end up in trouble or in chronic poverty like their parents.

The best part about school is the free breakfast. says Sharma, the self proclaimed funny one.

She likes the sausage sandwiches, says Ms. Andrews, 32 pulling Sharmas hair back in a tight ponytail.

Local school officials report a dramatic increase in the number of free meals served to children. Supporting this figure are estimates from the U.S. Department of Education that report more than 400,000 homeless children were served by the nations schools last year. On the basis of this data the report concludes that more than 1.2 million American children are homeless today.

About 12,600 of Riverside countys 428,000 students are either homeless or living in an environment that puts them at risk for becoming homeless. Gary Thomas superintendent of San
Bernardino County Schools puts the figure in his county at nearly 13,000 students.

Getting laid off was the tipping point says Andrews. Gas, food costs, increases in utilities and monthly rent, they add up. Nearly 3 months behind on the rent, Andrews says she begged her longtime landlord to give the family until January 1st to pay up.

I understand he has bills to pay too. So I had to pack our things in boxes and bags and leave.

Single mothers are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. And Ms. Andrews is among the countys roughly 7,000 chronically homeless adults living on streets or in shelters on any given night. Nearly 90 percent unable to find official shelters leaving them to sleep in cars or abandoned buildings according to social service providers in San Bernardino last month.

Chronic homelessness is nothing new in the Inland Empire but this year there are two merciless instigators on the block: a lingering housing crisis and the sinking U.S. economy which shed 533,000 jobs in November the worst one month job loss since 1974.

Social service providers in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties have set ambitious goals for actions they hope can end chronic homelessness in the region. Last month agency officials unveiled their 10-year strategy at the countys second annual Homeless Summit. The plan aims to find permanent housing for the countys chronic homeless adults.

The new strategy relies a lot on the kind of prevention the home mortgage crisis has pushed into the headlines: promoting landlord-tenant mediation, helping people with bad credit, and creating better access to affordable health care.

Area social service providers and homeless advocates say they need to do a better job identifying homeless people assessing their needs, and finding the help they need.

Both counties are seeking volunteers for their homeless count in January.

The census count helps determine how and where federal money is spent.

Riverside County homeless manager Ron Stewart says the count is required to get federal funding. He blames the worsening economy for pushing more people into episodic homelessness.

Those people may be individuals or families who are unable to buy or rent their own housing so they are living with family or friends. Technically they meet the definition of homeless.

They argue with you claiming Im not homeless Im living in my sisters basement well you are but youre homeless. So getting those people counted will be extremely challenging,
says Stewart.

As for Ms. Andrews she is used to hard times having been chronically homeless as a teen growing up in Oakland. Its the kids I feel sorry for. I never wanted this kind of life for my kids. They cope and cope and then you see them give up.

When kids are hurting they show it in different ways like fighting or shoplifting, explains Ms. Andrews.

Applying bright red lipstick she only graduated from high school. But after her children leave for the day, she plans to look for work.

Ill take just about anything to make ends meet, she says. To make ends meet a single parent of two young children working full time in a minimum wage job for a year would make $10,712 before taxes a wage $4,355 below the poverty threshold set by the federal government according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

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