Leon* is going into seventh grade in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He’s 14 and loves music, computers, and video games. He dreams of a career as a music engineer. He’s got a mischievous side and is a bit of a prankster. He loves paper airplanes.
He also loves history. Whether it’s Genghis Khan or Easter Island, the American Revolution or the Industrial Revolution, he can’t get enough. He has a remarkable ability to focus. Give him a set of math problems and the world vanishes until the last one’s solved. It’s a thing to behold.
It’s all the more remarkable given the deafening noise in his world. He lives in a homeless shelter in Compton with his mom, three older sisters and older brother. Leon and his siblings are among the estimated 17,000 homeless students in the LAUSD, a number that has tripled in the last three years. Kids who when the 3pm bell rings go to emergency shelters, motels, even cars, RVs, and sidewalk tents.
The numbers are eye-watering.
While overall homelessness increased by 19% in L.A. County last year, child homelessness exploded by 50%. That’s on top of a 50% increase in 2018. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Education as many as 71,727 children experienced homelessness countywide. Even that number may be a significant undercount: According to a study by the nonpartisan American Institutes for Research, in 2014 as many as 130,000 children may have experienced homelessness that year. Moreover, that was five years ago, before the crisis truly began to spiral out of control.
130,000 homeless children, in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history. How does this happen? How have we allowed it to happen? Why do we continue electing the same politicians responsible for creating the crisis, in the vain hope they’ll solve their own mess?
Violence is a fact of life for children like Leon. He speaks with a pronounced stutter that started after his best friend was killed in a random drive-by when they were eight. The murder is among the nearly 50% of homicides that go unsolved each year in Los Angeles, the majority in South L.A. He and his siblings regularly alter the route they walk to and from school because patterns are dangerous. His school is relatively safe, but fights are common. His oldest sister has been suspended multiple times and is now home-schooled. It’s harrowing to imagine how many obstacles he faces just to be a normal little boy. He never will be.
He’s 12 years old, and as a society we’ve given up on him. This is life in Eric Garcetti’s Los Angeles.
It’s impossible to acclimatize to the new reality in Los Angeles, to normalize to the notion that for children like Leon life isn’t much different from that of a child in a war-torn developing country. For that matter, Leon is receiving a third world education. He’s going into the eighth grade and he can’t define a noun without prompting. He reads and writes at a third grade level, maybe. He can’t do multiplication tables beyond 5 without a calculator.
Yet Leon lives in the world’s fifth largest economy. His shelter is three miles from Playa Vista and the billions being invested in Silicon Beach. A twelve minute drive down Centinela Boulevard might as well be a twelve hour flight.
Again, Leon is tragically typical. LAUSD public education outcomes are among the worst in the state, making them among the very worst in the country. Though California is home to roughly 12% of the U.S. population, it has nearly half of the worst performing schools.
In 2017 barely a third of students met or exceeded math standards each year, and fewer than 40% did the same in English Language Arts. In poor areas like Compton the rates were 6.6% and 11.8%, respectively. LAUSD graduates thousands of high school seniors annually who are functionally illiterate – young adults who lack the skills to fill out a fast food job application.
The state of public education in Los Angeles is all the more troubling given the direct connections between education and poverty. Ending poverty starts with the next generation, with kids who are three and four years old. The public school is the foundation for the community and where you find good schools you find strong communities. Where you see bad schools, you see broken ones. If our city is to ever see a decrease in poverty and homelessness, it will follow a reemergence of our schools in a very profound way.
There are reasons for cautious hope. Even as officials dither, individuals are realizing this is an all-hands moment. People are having conversations they weren’t having even a couple years ago. Hundreds of private organizations, nonprofits, and faith groups are putting resources into the fight. They’re leveraging technology and modern behavioral and cognitive science. They crowdsource and harness social media.
Gerald is a father whose seventh grade daughter is enrolled in a program called School on Wheels, which provides tutors and mentors to homeless children in southern California shelters, libraries, schools, and other places homeless families gather (full disclosure: I volunteer with the program). He says that in the last year or so, services have been more visible.
Time will tell if these efforts will coalesce meaningfully. Whether California writ large will heed a call to action. The futures of millions of children like Leon depend on it.
* Not his real name. Details of Leon’s life have been changed to protect his privacy.