For Homeless Children, Lessons In Stability

Story by Susan Hoffmann
Photos by Gina Long

Every Wednesday, Lisa Rodriguez drives to a homeless shelter to tutor *Alma. When the weather’s nice, they sit outside on the wide front porch. “She likes to do science projects, so it’s perfect to be outdoors.”

Rodriguez is a tutor for the Los Angeles-based nonprofit School on Wheels. She’s one of roughly two thousand volunteers working with a nearly invisible population: children growing up homeless.

“These children are at an unimaginable disadvantage,” said Catherine Meek, executive director of School on Wheels. “Their families may move two or three times a year, uprooting the children, causing gaps in their learning.” School on Wheels removes barriers that keep these children out of school — tracking down lost records needed to enroll, filling backpacks with school supplies, and providing weekly one-on-one tutoring sessions.

The shelter where *Alma is tutored. Photo by Gina Long.

Volunteer tutors are at the heart of their program. Rigorously screened, they agree to a minimum one-year commitment. School on Wheels then matches them with a student, based on the volunteer’s skills and the needs of the student. “We know the better the match,” said  Meek, “the greater the long-term success.”

Mona Tse, another School on Wheels volunteer, has tutored 15-year-old *Martin for two years. Once a week, she leaves work and walks to the public library down the street.

“Mona helps me in stuff I need help in,” Martin said of his tutor. “She puts a lot of effort to help me strive.”

His school recommended the program to his mother as a way to keep him on track. His grades have improved with tutoring and he’s found acceptance at school. “I was just elected to the Associated Student Body,” he said. “I get to set up fun activities like pep rallies and dances.”

Mona Tse works with *Martin at a local public library. Photo by Gina Long.

This family had a specific need. “We didn’t have the internet,” Martin’s mother explained. They came to the library for a connection but still couldn’t keep up. “If you missed an online assignment or teacher report, you might slip behind by weeks.”

“Teachers assume you have electronics,” Martin said. “And if you tell them you don’t have them, they don’t believe you.”

For homeless families, acquiring the materials and skills to succeed in a digital learning environment is crucial for a child’s success. Many schools, like the one Martin attends, are setting aside textbooks, with their printed examples and worksheets, in favor of homework posted online. With Tse’s help, the family has become savvy with technology. “Mona has helped us stay on track. I’m so grateful for that,” said Martin’s mother.

Tse admitted her good luck being matched with Martin, who comes every week, eager to learn. She had volunteered before, she said, in high school and college, but had taken a break to establish her career. “I was itching to get back into the community,” she said. “I know I can only do so much, but having this impact on the community to help people, that’s something I wanted to be a part of.”

Last year, School on Wheels sent their volunteers to libraries and shelters and public places to tutor more than three thousand students across Southern California. But this effort is only part of a solution to a mounting emergency in this region, where rising rents and stagnant incomes are driving more people from their homes.

Tutor Lisa Rodriguez sets up a science experiment. Photo by Gina Long.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which records yearly changes in the homeless population, found a 23 percent increase in 2016. And in the San Gabriel Valley, where Alma lives, that number soared to 31 percent. Within those numbers, a startling one reveals a 41 percent increase in homeless children under the age of 18.

National studies have shown these children are likely to fall behind in school, underperform their peers, and likely drop out before completing high school. “That’s why we work so hard to keep them in school,” said Meek. But, she admitted, it’s hard to quantify the success of School on Wheels. “We’re working with such a transient community, with children of all ages and abilities. It’s hard to establish a baseline and then measure outcome.”

They rely, in part, on anecdotes, including this one. Meek agreed to tutor a little girl at a shelter. When she arrived the first time, she found the girl hiding under a table. “So, I joined her there, on the floor, and we read together.” This happened for many weeks. One day, the girl was sitting on a chair at the table, waiting for her tutor. “I call that a success.”

Angela Sanchez is a “graduate” of School on Wheels who went on to earn two degrees from UCLA. Photo courtesy of Angela Sanchez.

And so is the story of Angela Sanchez. During high school, her father lost his job and the two became homeless. Angela was struggling with calculus. She knew she had to pass the course to graduate. One of the shelters where they lived recommended School on Wheels, which matched her with a Ph.D. student in astrophysics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “Yes, a rocket scientist!” Meek said. Angela passed calculus, was admitted to UCLA, and went on to earn two degrees from there. She founded the campus chapter of School on Wheels and now writes a blog about “homelessness, higher education and hope” called Poverty to Professional.

It’s not unusual for former students to become tutors for School on Wheels, or even join their board. Their firsthand knowledge of homelessness and poverty inspires them to help. For volunteers like Rodriguez, the hardships of her childhood played a part in her decision to tutor.

“I thought back on the people who helped me when I was little,” she said, “and I decided tutoring in my community was the right thing to do. I’ve found my purpose in Alma. I mean, a little Latina who likes science! How can I not want to spend my Wednesday evenings with her?”

*Names of children have been changed to protect their privacy.


Susan Hoffmann lives in California, where she writes personal essays inspired by her family. She has retired from a long career in art museum education, having written educational materials and taught classes for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She also wrote promotional materials for the California Institute of Technology and the Art Center College of Design, where she taught courses on modern art. Hoffmann’s work has been published by Literary Mama and Gravel; her essay “A Boy Like Mine” was a finalist in the Tenth Glass Woman Prize.

Gina Long believes photography is more about “translation than creation.” She’s been shooting for over 25 years and began her career with Court TV and, later, served as the Missing Child Producer at “America’s Most Wanted.” Long also produced broadcast documentary programs for Discovery Network and CBS. Today, she is the owner of The Unexpected Portrait in Southern California.

Copyright © 500 Pens. August 2017.