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When A Budget Motel Is 'Home,' There's Little Room For Childhood

Just a couple of blocks off the 210 Freeway in San Bernardino, Calif., about an hour east of LA, rest a whole row of cheap, rundown motels. Some people stay for a night or two, others just by the hour.

But some rooms house families with kids — and these families aren't just stopping in.

This is home for them, at least for now. They've run out of other options for a roof over their heads.

California ranks third in the U.S. — behind only Kentucky and New York — in the percentage of children who don't have a home, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. The evidence of this is clear in San Bernardino, which is littered with dilapidated neighborhoods and abandoned blocks, even in the city's center.

Here, budget motels have become a last refuge for desperate people with nowhere else to go. Joe Mozingo, the Los Angeles Times staff writer behind the series San Bernardino: Broken City, says kids who live in these motels get exposed to some troubling conditions.

"Drug addicts and prostitutes, people with severe mental illness," he explains. "It's just kind of a crazy place for a child to grow up in."

For instance, Eddie, the 14-year-old at the heart of one of Mozingo's pieces, had to cope with bullying, the death of his cousin and a mother who was usually strung out on meth — before she got arrested.

"So he was just totally left alone with his mom's boyfriend, who's also a meth user," Mozingo says. "And he just didn't know what to do. I've just never seen a kid look so lost and in need of guidance."

At the Golden Star Inn, one of the motels just off a juncture in San Bernardino, Karen lives with her 5-year-old son, Ian. (She asked that we not use her last name to protect her and her son.) The morning Mozingo and I spoke with her, she had just filed a restraining order against her husband; she says he's addicted to meth. She and Ian have lived in a shabby, dimly lit room for nearly three months.

In the room, there are signs of an effort to create something resembling a home: stuffed animals and Disney pillows strewn on the bed, and laundry hung up to dry on a closet wall.

Karen, a phone psychic, pays $300 a week to live at the motel.

"Normally it's not a problem to pay rent here every week," Karen says. "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."

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.

"It was like summer camp for meth addicts. 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," she says. "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 ..."

Even here, it's far from an ideal community for Ian.

"You'll have probation [officers] come through, because they're doing probation sweeps ... or you'll have random naked people screaming, running through. It gets bizarre," she says.

"And how do you explain that to a 5-year-old?"

San Bernardino is poorer than any other American city of its size besides Detroit. And in San Bernardino County, just shy of 10 percent of public school students are identified as homeless — twice the rate of nearby Los Angeles County.

"The recession hit this community especially hard," says Dr. Kennon Mitchell, the assistant superintendent of student services for the San Bernardino City Unified School District. "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."

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 students enrolled there lives in a motel.

"And of course it causes that school to have a high turnover. They're close to a 55 percent turnover rate over there," he says. "So sometimes we'll have kids drop and re-enroll two or three times in the same school year."

The school district provides outreach. There's a Homeless Student Program, counseling, health services, clothing and school supply donation and transportation to and from school. But the school system can only do so much.

"We can't eliminate some of those real-life circumstances that families are going through as it relates to the economy and jobs," Mitchell says. "So what we just try to do is just try to mitigate the impact on kids' education, because we believe that the better we can educate the youth, the youth will provide a pathway for their families to success."

As for Ian, back at the Golden Star Inn, he's enrolled at California Virtual Academy — a tuition-free online public charter school. It's a mix of home schooling and one-on-one lessons with a teacher.

Karen says that with Ian's behavioral problems, that's exactly what he needs.

"We just got his shipment actually of all of his books and stuff for this year. And they're real supportive of what we're going through," she says. "His teacher is awesome."

Karen says while they may be "technically homeless," she strives to create a stable environment for Ian. But it's "gone crazy" since her husband left, she says.

She hopes for a permanent place someday, with a room for Ian — his own private space. "He saw way too much in the last few weeks," she says.

Meanwhile, she tries to protect him by keeping him inside the motel room, which holds two beds, a desk, a TV and a makeshift kitchen — just a toaster oven on top of a minifridge. They go to the park, too. But this place is not a home.

And they have no idea when they might finally get a real one.

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