Eight-year old Christian Lee had an honest talk with his mom about what being homeless is like on California radio station KQED. He and his mom, Danielle Parker, have been homeless since 2013, living in family members' houses or in their car until they moved into transitional housing in Oakland, where they live now.
“We were around family members, but still we didn’t have our home to live in by ourselves, no privacy or anything,” he says on the recording. “I kind of felt unsafe and safe at the same time.”
Contrary to common stereotypes, in 2013, 86 percent of homeless students in California were living not in the street or in a shelter, but “doubled up,” in other people’s homes, according to the California Homeless Youth Project.
“[Living with others] is the most common experience of homelessness for children and families,” Shehera Hyatt, director of the California Homeless Youth Project, told The Huffington Post on Wednesday. “And it’s not one family going to live with another who is middle class -- like, oh, they’re sleeping in the spare bedroom. Usually they’re sharing spaces with multiple families, living in substandard situations, sometimes in kitchens, closets, even backyards.”
Christian and his mom are far from an anomaly: 2.5 million children experienced homelessness in the U.S. in 2013, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. That’s one in every 30 American kids.
“This has become such an issue across the country, as communities are rebounding post-recession and as communities start to gentrify and rents go up,” Hyatt said. “Two thirds of California’s counties have no programs designed to serve homeless youth, so there isn’t usually an option to go to a shelter or other supportive housing. Families are doing the best they can.”
When Danielle asked her son how he felt going to school while homeless, he said: “It made me feel kind of sad. That’s one of the reasons I’m kind of distracted a lot.”
Many homeless children struggle in school, with the hardships of homelessness impacting their learning and cognitive skills, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. They end up missing days, repeating grades or dropping out entirely, and up to 40 percent have mental health problems.
Christian, a fourth-grader at Richmond College Prep, is great at math, and even skipped kindergarten because he was ahead of his class, according to KQED.
Another stereotype people often get wrong about homelessness is assuming kids are homeless because their parents did something wrong.
“We think it’s bad parents, but that’s not the story. The story is the lack of infrastructure to serve people in crisis -- we don’t have enough affordable housing,” Hyatt said. “When you ask someone on the street why they became homeless, no one’s going to say it’s because of decades of federal disinvestment in affordable housing. It’s much easier to look around and see people in the streets as the problem -- and not see it's the broken system.”
Despite their difficult living circumstances, Christian’s parents are doing the best they can to give him the support and love that he needs:
“As I’ve grown, you and my dad have been telling me that you should always be positive,” he said to his mother on the radio show. “Sometimes I might not believe in myself, and you always tell me to believe in yourself.”
Listen to the full conversation between Christian and his mom here.
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