An American homeless family
By Lucy Nicholson
On her second day of camping near the coast north of Los Angeles, Benita Guzman lit a match, threw it on a pile of logs, and poured gasoline on top. As flames engulfed her hand and foot, her niece, Angelica Cervantes, rushed to throw sand over her. Benita thrust her burning hand into a pile of mud, and took a deep breath.
Camping’s not easy. It’s a whole lot rougher when you’re a pair of homeless single mothers trying to keep seven children fed, clothed, washed and in school.
Guzman, 40, and two of her children are living outdoors with Cervantes, 36, and five of her children. The two banded together in an effort to keep the children together as a family, and not taken away and separated in foster homes.
“It’s scary, especially at night,” says Guzman. “I’ve always been spoiled. I have a large family and when we went on camping trips, I was the princess.”
At first they slept in a rental van. Then they picked up a couple of tents at a thrift store.
Now, after three weeks of sleeping at a campsite in Santa Paula, the family can no longer afford the rental van to ferry the kids to school in Port Hueneme.
They decide to put their belongings in storage and find a cheap motel room for the night, so the children can walk to school.
“I’m living moment by moment, day by day,” says Guzman.
“I’m holding it all together. There are times I break down. I try not to let the kids see me. They tell me, ‘If you crack, we all crack. If you break Mom, we all break, because you’re the one who holds us together.’ So that’s what keeps me going.”
A tear rolls slowly down her cheek.
The family is part of a disturbing trend. One in 45 children, totaling 1.6 million, is homeless, the highest number in United States’ history, according to a 2011 study by the National Center on Family Homelessness.
Children who are homeless are more likely to suffer from acute and chronic medical illnesses, finds the study. They go hungry at twice the rate of other children. They have three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems, such as anxiety, depression, sleep problems, withdrawal, and aggression.
California is ranked the fifth highest state in the nation for its percentage of homeless children.
At dawn the two women pack the chattering, laughing children into the minivan, leaving the tents at the campground. They shuttle between schools, and then find a public restroom in a park.
Guzman struggles to douse her thick curly hair with drops of cold water from the tiny sink. Both women slip into stalls to change clothes.
They stop at a café for coffee and a pastry. Guzman’s hair is wet and she shivers as she cradles the hot cup. They’ve been trying to cook healthy meals on the campfire, but it’s a chore to keep their bellies full. “I’ve got to make sure my kids eat,” Cervantes says. “If I don’t eat, I don’t eat.” At one point last year, her weight had dropped from 180 pounds to 152 pounds.
After returning to the campsite to collect their belongings and jam them in the van, they drive to a shelter they hope will take Cervantes with all her children, and not reject the teenage boy. They are told to return the next morning.
After Guzman’s husband left five years ago, and Cervantes’ husband went to jail, both women struggled to hold down graveyard-shift, low-paying jobs while taking care of their children.
Guzman’s son Richard, now 20, was angry after his father left, and fought at school. Guzman missed her annual appointment for housing benefits to attend his probation hearing. She called to reschedule, but twice was sent letters after their appointment dates had passed.
She was evicted at Christmas.
By the time they check in to the motel in the evening, Cervantes can’t stop clutching her aching head. All their clothes are in the storage locker. Guzman carries only a box of snacks – carrots, oranges, chips – and returns to the van for a cooler of sodas.
The children rush excitedly towards the first bed they’ve seen in weeks, and begin bouncing on it while trying to work the television remote control. “Let’s see in the drawers if they have clothes for us,” says Tomas Cervantes, 6, as he starts searching.
Veronica Cervantes, 9, lies on the bed and pulls out a wobbly tooth. “The tooth fairy’s not going to come,” taunts Tomas.
The children become hungrier as the night wears on, as they wait for Guzman to return with dinner. Preciosa Cervantes, 8, climbs from the fridge onto a high shelf where the snacks are stored. Her mother tells her to get down.
She retreats to the bathroom, and takes a long shower. She walks out with toilet paper wrapped stylishly around her chest. Everybody laughs as she strikes a pose. Later her brother complains that she has used all the soap.
By the time Guzman returns with a bucket of fried chicken, a couple of the kids are already sleeping.
Six-year-old Tomas drowsily bites into piece after piece. He burrows under the covers in the only remaining space, at the foot of the bed, and falls asleep with a bag of chips in his hand.
His brother Francisco Gona, 15, tries to do his homework by reading a textbook about Europe in the 1930s, but looks up occasionally as Cervantes watches The Dukes of Hazzard on TV.
“I’ve taught them all – you finish school,” says Guzman. She worries about the nightmares and anxiety attacks the children experience, but is determined to pull them through.
“I think it’s going to help them grow,” she says. “When they get older and they end up in a situation, they’re going to have skills that a lot of kids don’t have. They’re going to learn unity.”
(View a slideshow of images here)
Post script: March 12, 2012
A lot of readers have contacted Reuters, wanting to know how they can help this family.
Sinead Chilton is organizing tutoring for the children through School on Wheels. School on Wheel provides educational assistance to over 1,500 children annually. If you would like to donate directly to the organization you can do so via their website.