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By Matthew Mundy
LOS ANGELES - Mario, a lanky high school student, enjoys the friendly confines of a youth center in downtown Los Angeles. He plays video games, watches television and gets help with homework. That he is also homeless almost goes unnoticed in the warm and supportive environment of the Central City Community Center, a faith-based organization headquartered in downtown’s Skid Row.
“I think [Skid Row] hardens me a little, yeah, but you persevere with God. Nothing’s impossible here,” said Mario, whose last name was not used because he is a minor.
Central City dispenses hope and other services not covered by the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Act, offering help with homework and sometimes even food. Nestled away on 6th Street and San Pedro in downtown Los Angeles, you could pass Central City’s green doors with nary a glance. There’s no sign for the organization, and its big metal doors open up to the sidewalk that smells of urine. Inside, though, is a completely different story. In one room, kids sit around reading to each other, with their individual lockers lining the walls in the kitchen. In another, teenagers gather around the brand new computers, laughing at YouTube videos, and a plasma screen TV perches above a Playstation 3 in front of some brand new couches, which themselves sit just in front of a brand new kitchen. Walking into Central City is – both literally and figuratively – a breath of fresh air.
Backpacks with food
The organization operates two programs out of its space – Say Yes! for elementary school students, most of them from Ninth Street Street Elementary School in South Los Angeles, and the Youth Development Program for junior high and high-schoolers, who come from all over the county – and is part of a small network of small nonprofit organizations downtown that help out, as best they can, schools beleaguered with plentiful homeless students and less than plentiful funds. Schools on Wheels, Las Familias del Pueblos, and Para Los Ninos serve Los Angeles homeless kids in a variety of ways, including tutoring children and youth and providing relief from life-challenging circumstances. Other organizations assist in other ways; the Los Angeles Food Bank, for example, donates 125 food backpacks to Ninth Street Elementary every second Friday, the contents of which are sent home with kids so they can eat properly. And in Orange County, one organization extends assistance to families on the verge of homelessness. The Orange County Community Advocacy Forum provides motel rooms for families and their children who have lost their homes and are living in hotels. The organization, supported in part by the Saddleback Church in Orange County, was cofounded by two USC graduate students in the School of Social Work.
Like other organizations, Central City offers after-school services to its 50 registered students four days a week. Most of these kids are referred to them by local missions, schools, from the organization’s own outreach efforts, or from word-of-mouth. The organization is able to maximize its help by coordinating its efforts with the schools and focusing on the one-on-one learning experiences that so often are lacking at the students’ schools, while creating and maintaining close relationships with parents as well.
“It’s mentoring and an after-school program for helping with homework… and giving kids the opportunity to see the world,” said Grady Martine, executive director at the Christian organization, which often organizes field trips for the students as well. “It’s about relationships and it’s about dignity… We say, confidently, that we know every single family in the Skid Row area, personally.”
A little bit of hope
The tangible assistance – help with school work and relief from shelter life – is coupled with another critical service: Offering these homeless children and youth hope. “When you see them as they get older, they seem to more and more realize their situation, and get more cynical and more guarded,” said Matt Raab, a team leader at Schools on Wheels, whose vans travel the streets of Skid Row to help kids living in the homeless shelters and missions with their school work. “It seems that as the years pass, they seem to get more disillusioned with everything.”
But the nonprofits’ campaign appears to help some of the homeless students facing the hardness of life, including Mario, a lanky, 6-foot 5-inch tall, gregarious 17-year-old African American who takes advantage of the services offered by Central City. With a black doo rag, some peach fuzz, Mario, who didn’t want his last name used, has a remarkably easy charisma about him. “Everybody around here, they used to go to my school and stuff, I was like where y’all going after school, they just be disappearing, and so obviously they be going to the Say Yes! Program,” he said one afternoon while at the center. “They got couches and shit, shoot I’m down to go. Now they hooked the whole thing up, it’s like a party now, man,” he said with a laugh.
Mario currently lives at the Huntington Hotel on Skid Row in a one-room apartment with his mother and his two younger brothers. They moved down here from Van Nuys about three years ago, when Mario’s mother lost her job. “Wrong place, wrong time,” he sighed, his deep voice reverberating around his throat.
The change in atmosphere was a shock for Mario, who was unprepared for the harsh downtown living. “I was like, ‘damn… The whole world is not nice and pleasant,’” he said with a chuckle, remembering when they moved down to the Union Rescue Mission, where they were before the Huntington. “Pros(titutes), drugs, everyday everywhere… You learn a whole lot when you come down here.”
Mario goes to school at the Metropolitan Skills Center, a school run by the Los Angeles Unified School District that offers him a little more freedom in his course choices and class schedule. He hopes to become a kindergarten teacher, and is planning to earn his GED, the high school diploma equivalent, by the end of this year. He is – despite his surroundings– optimistic about the future.
You can help homeless children and youth by contributing to or volunteering at the following organizations:
Central City Community Organization, a Los Angeles based group that provides a variety of services for homeless children and young people.
Orange County Community Advocacy Forum assists families and their children living in motels.
Schools on Wheels, a national organization that tutors homeless children and youth.
Para los Ninos, a Los Angeles group that helps children facing poverty and other life challenges.