TESS VIGELAND, HOST:
Just a couple of blocks off the busy 210 freeway in San Bernardino, Calif., about an hour east of LA, there's a whole row of cheap, rundown motels. Some people stay here for a night or two, others just by the hour. But some are families with kids. And they're not just there for a night or two. This is home, at least for now. California ranks third, behind Kentucky and New York, in the percentage of children who don't have a home - that's according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. The evidence is clear here in San Bernardino.
JOE MOZINGO: Huge abandoned blocks. In the middle - I mean, this is Central San Bernardino.
MOZINGO: You just see it everywhere.
VIGELAND: We went on a drive through its dilapidated neighborhoods with Joe Mozingo. He's a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times and wrote recently about these motel-dwelling families for a series called San Bernardino: Broken City.
MOZINGO: The main kid I focused on was this 14 year old named Eddie who just - I could barely get him to talk, actually. At least at first, he was really, really shy. His cousin had died, and he was crying in class, and some kids tried to bully him. And his mom was strung out, so she didn't really get on his case about it. So he was just kind of drifting around the motel. And then his mom got arrested. So he was just totally left alone with his mom's boyfriend, who's also a meth user. And he just didn't know what to do. He just looked - I just never seen a kid look so lost and in need of guidance.
VIGELAND: Budget motels really have become this last refuge for people with nowhere else to go. What sorts of conditions are these kids exposed to?
MOZINGO: Drug addicts and prostitutes and people with severe mental illness. It's just kind of a crazy place for a child to grow up in.
VIGELAND: So we are at this kind of juncture in San Bernardino, and there's numerous motels right here.
MOZINGO: There's the All Star Lodge there - that's one of them. And then the Roadway Inn - we got the Golden Star.
VIGELAND: That's where we pull in - the Golden Star Inn.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
KAREN: Hi, come on in.
MOZINGO: Hey, Karen.
VIGELAND: That's Karen. She's asked that we not use her last name to protect her and her son, Ian. Just that morning, she'd filed a restraining order against her husband. She says he's addicted to meth. Karen and Ian have lived in this shabby, dimly-lit room for nearly three months. But there are stuffed animals and Disney pillows on the bed, and laundry hanging out to dry on a closet wall - signs of an effort to create something resembling a home. Karen works as a phone psychic. She pays $300 a week to live here.
KAREN: Normally, it's not a problem to pay rent here every week. The last couple of weeks, because the situation with my husband, I've been at court so much, and running around so much trying to take care of stuff, I haven't been able to work a lot the last couple weeks. Last week was really pinchy-tight. We think we've got this week covered, and I have no idea what the hell I'm going to do next week.
VIGELAND: Before the motel, they had their own apartment. But when she didn't get enough work, she says they missed a month of rent and got kicked out the day before New Year's. They stayed with a friend for a while, then got a room at a motel a few miles down the road from this one. That place, she says, was a nightmare.
KAREN: It was like summer camp for meth addicts, you know, because everybody was bouncing between rooms and chit-chatting. And it was this social drama that was going on all the time - all day and all night. And our place sort of became a social hub, too, because my husband was using at the time. And we just got too much in the drama. And it was too much for the little one. And so my husband just started hitting all the motels, and this one had a space, so...
VIGELAND: And how old is your son?
KAREN: He's five. He'll be six in October.
VIGELAND: What kind of community is this for him?
KAREN: Oh gosh. You know what? I don't - I honestly - I don't let him interact with any of the people that are around here for the most part. He's gotten used to it - some of the weirder aspects of living here.
VIGELAND: Like what?
KAREN: You'll have probation come through, because they're doing probation sweeps - you know, four or five cop cars roll up with lights and sirens on, you know, pulling in. Or you'll have random naked people screaming, running through the - it gets bizarre.
VIGELAND: And how do you explain that to a five-year-old?
San Bernardino is the second-poorest city of its size in the nation. Detroit is first. And in San Bernardino County, just shy of 10 percent of public school students have been identified as homeless. That is twice the rate of nearby Los Angeles County. Kennon Mitchell is the assistant superintendent of student services at San Bernardino City Unified School District.
KENNON MITCHELL: The recession hit this community especially hard. Close to 50 percent of our residents receive some sort of public assistance. And close to 97 percent of our students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Which means that they're below the poverty line.
VIGELAND: One prime example is Juanita Blakely Jones Elementary School, just a block away from the Golden Star Inn. Mitchell says 1 in 5 of the school's students live in motels.
MITCHELL: And of course it causes that school to have a high turnover. They're close to a 55 percent turnover rate over there. So sometimes we'll have kids drop and re-enroll two or three times in the same school year.
VIGELAND: The district provides outreach. There's a homeless student program, counseling, health services, donated clothing and school supplies and transportation to and from school. But the school system can only do so much.
MITCHELL: We can't eliminate some of those real life circumstances that families are going through as it relates to the economy and jobs. So what we just try to do is just try to mitigate the impact on kid's education, because we believe that the better we can educate the youth, the youth can provide a pathway for their families to success.
KAREN: Yeah, that's your school stuff, huh?
IAN: And this is a tambourine.
VIGELAND: Yeah, can you play that for us?
IAN: I don't know how to play any of these.
VIGELAND: As for five-year-old Ian back at the Golden Star Inn, he's enrolled in an online charter school with a mix of home schooling, and one-on-one lessons with a teacher. Karen says with his behavioral problems, that's exactly what he needs.
KAREN: And they're real supportive of what we're going through. And they don't have a problem with the fact that we're technically homeless and all that kind of stuff. And his teacher is awesome, so...
VIGELAND: I'm curious why you say technically homeless. Are you not just homeless?
KAREN: No, because I'm not living on the streets. I'm not, you know - I'm not bouncing...
VIGELAND: You have a roof over your head?
KAREN: I have a roof over my head that's consistent and stable because I make it so. You know, we don't say we're going to the motel room or - you know, it's like, come on, buddy, let's go home, you know, because right now this is home for him.
VIGELAND: What are your main concerns for your son at this point?
KAREN: Getting him back into a home where he has a room of his own, a space of his own, and then getting him through the stuff with my husband, because that's the worst part right now for him. Since my husband left, it's just gotten crazy again, you know, and he's really struggling. And he's going to have to do therapy. He's going to have to do therapy, because he saw way too much in the last few weeks.
VIGELAND: She tries to protect him by keeping him inside the room, which holds two beds, a desk, a TV and a makeshift kitchen that's just a toaster oven on top of a mini fridge. And they go to the park. But it's not home. And they have no idea when they might finally get a real one.
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