ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
More than a million public school students in this country don't have permanent homes. California has the highest rate of homeless children enrolled in schools anywhere in the country. They live in the shadows - cheap motels, emergency shelters, campgrounds, even cars. Gloria Hillard has this report on the hidden homeless.
GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: It's late afternoon, and school has just let out. Students make their way toward the parking lot where moms in shiny SUVs are waiting. Here, a dusty 2001 Ford Taurus stands out. Kids walk by and stare. In the backseat of the Taurus, fourteen-year-old James, a tall boy in a checkered shirt, smiles. He is familiar with the stares.
JAMES: I really didn't tell anyone, of course. But...
HILLARD: ...They knew. It's hard to hide homelessness from other kids, he says. They want to know why you're wearing the same shirt, and why you look tired.
JAMES: Since the car is so short, and me and my older brother are too big for this thing, sometimes we'd put our feet up against the dashboard or sometimes just sleep on our backs and then just have our knees bent upward.
HILLARD: That's when this battered station wagon was home to James and his three siblings. It would be James, 15-year-old Joseph and 12-year-old Joshua in the backseat. Their younger sister would curl up in the passenger seat, and their mother would sleep sitting up in the driver seat.
ELIZABETH: I remember sitting in my car while all the kids were sleeping. I could hear their breath, you know? Just breathing.
HILLARD: Mom, Elizabeth, is a domestic violence victim. We are not using her last name because she still fears for her safety. She says she and her children felt safer together, in a car and on the move than in a shelter.
ELIZABETH: You just cry. And you don't want to cry too loud, because you don't want to wake up the kids...
HILLARD: ...Because in the morning, they had to go to school - 15-year-old Joseph.
JOSEPH: And then when we get ready for school or just getting dressed, we would just go to, like, a public bathroom or, like, a park bathroom...
JOSEPH: McDonald's - brush our teeth in McDonald's, or change in McDonald's and then come out. And then we'd just go to school from there.
PATRICIA JULIANELLE: I think that schools are doing the best they can.
HILLARD: But Patricia Julianelle, an attorney with the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, says the majority of these children are not receiving the assistance they need.
JULIANELLE: Ironically, they are the only homeless service providers in most communities in the state. Yet, schools, absolutely, are under-resourced to meet this problem.
HILLARD: It is a problem in both rural communities and large cities - children and youth that have become the hidden homeless - except here.
On Los Angeles's Skid Row, the average age of a homeless child is eight. Because of the overwhelming need, School on Wheels, a nonprofit that tutors homeless students, has a permanent learning center here.
ALLISON MALDONADO: There is a lot of you, so I need you all super-focused. Can you do that?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Yes.
HILLARD: That's School on Wheels' Allison Maldonado. She's getting ready to escort pint-sized children through the human maze of misery that defines this area. Weighed down by backpacks, some clutching stuffed animals, they move forward hand-in-hand. When they approach a particularly dangerous corner, the children begin to chant. It is a top-of-their-lungs heads-up that kids are coming through.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Chanting) Kids coming through. Kids coming through.
HILLARD: Crack pipes are lowered. A drug deal moves down the alley. Sometimes, vacant stares are replaced by smiles, allowing the children safe passage to here, an after school program where they will be given a snack and help with their schoolwork.
MALDONADO: If the answer is no homework, raise your hands.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: No homework.
MALDONADO: You sure?
HILLARD: Catherine Meek, the executive director of School on Wheels, says homelessness has a devastating impact on children's education.
CATHERINE MEEK: They estimate that they are nine times more likely to repeat a grade, four times more likely to drop out of school entirely. They're at risk for physical abuse, sexual abuse, health, medical issues - a huge problem.
HILLARD: This year, the nonprofit has served over 3,000 homeless students. The volunteer tutors go to where they are - motels, shelters, even families living in cars. That was the case with Elizabeth and her kids. Here's 14-year-old James.
JAMES: She actually just drove to wherever we were so she can keep that bond. And that was pretty nice. I appreciate that, too.
HILLARD: The family is now living in a transitional apartment. And today, volunteer Mari Gomez is tutoring the boys at the kitchen table.
MARI GOMEZ: So, do you remember where we left off before with the geometry?
HILLARD: Nine-year-old Abigail is working on her multiplication tables.
GOMEZ: Let's go back.
ABIGAIL: Wait, go back where?
GOMEZ: Six times one.
ABIGAIL: Oh. Six.
GOMEZ: Six times two.
HILLARD: Abigail, a girl with long pigtails and big dreams, says some of the worst things about living in the car were the cold and doing her schoolwork.
ABIGAIL: My writing was very sloppy, though, because I had to do it, like, on the seat of the car. And, you know, it's like mushy and stuff. So, yeah, it was kind of hard to do my homework. I - it's not so good, so...
HILLARD: Now that she has a home, fourth grade should be a little easier. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.