Daejanae Marshall remembers waking up in a panic before 5 a.m. Something was wrong.
She was 22 and a new mom. And baby Zah'Nyah was her world.
“I had promised myself there’s things I was going to do while I was pregnant,” she said. “And after meeting my baby, I was like: I have to get us a place. You have to have your own room.”
Marshall was homeless. She had a job at a movie theater and cash assistance from the state, but that didn’t cover rent.
They were living in a shelter in Boyle Heights, hoping one of Los Angeles’ scattered non-profits would find them a subsidized apartment. Despite the disruption, Zah'Nyah had been doing well.
But that Tuesday morning, Marshall awoke suddenly to find Zah'Nyah wasn’t breathing. Marshall jumped to action.
“I was doing CPR,” she said. “The ambulance was asking all these dumb questions. It was just infuriating.
“I remember we were just about to go and they were like: ‘it’s too late.’” Marshall recalled. “And I just broke. You know. I broke.”
An autopsy would turn up no illness that could explain it. Zah'Nyah’s death was reported as Sudden Unexplained Infant Death and the medical examiner noted “co-sleeping” as a factor.
The shelter didn’t have a crib, just bunk beds. Marshall said the shelter operators didn’t allow her to bring a bassinet or any other “outside” furniture. Fearing Zah'Nyah would fall and hurt herself, Marshall had dragged a mattress onto the floor and that’s where the two slept every night.
Experts say sleeping on a regular bed can obstruct an infant’s breathing and lead to accidental death.
Zah'Nyah was 3 ½ months old when she died on November 27, 2012.
I remember we were just about to go and they were like: ‘it’s too late.’ And I broke. You know. I broke.
Her death is a rare, tragic result of a growing problem: California is failing to keep parents with young children from slipping into extreme poverty and, ultimately homelessness.
Despite federal and state money earmarked specifically to support children’s wellbeing, government programs are inadequate to meet the region’s rising housing costs and falling incomes, leaving the poorest families on the street.
California’s version of cash welfare, CalWORKs, gives a parent with two children a maximum of $714 a month. That’s meant to be flexible income impoverished and down-on-their-luck families can use to pay the rent and utilities or to buy their kids shoes.
But it’s not enough.
According to the California Budget & Policy Center, the average low-cost apartment in California costs $870 a month – about $150 more than the CalWORKs check.
“The maximum amount of assistance won’t even cover low-cost rent in California,” said Alissa Anderson, a senior analyst with the group.
In Los Angeles County, rent-restricted apartments for lower-income families cost even more, $977 a month. The average asking rent for a regular apartment in Los Angeles is $2,108 a month, according to the California Housing Partnership. The maximum CalWORKs payments for a family of three would cover about a third of that.
Maximum monthly CalWORKs check for family of three (2007-2016)
“That is the single most direct factor in contributing to the rise in family homelessness,” said Phil Ansell, director of Los Angeles County’s effort to address homelessness.
“If the CalWORKs benefits are inadequate to pay for housing, then they become homeless,” he said. “The equation is that simple.”
Rents in L.A. spiked 25 percent from 2000 to 2012. During the same period, CalWORKs not only failed to keep up – the grant was reduced by $7 per month.
The result? The number of L.A. County families enrolled in CalWORKs who couldn’t give a permanent address—code for homeless – tripled from about 5,500 in 2006 to almost 17,000 in 2015.
Homeless families on CalWORKs in LA County
Many of the thousands of homeless families in Los Angeles include small children. Some live in shelters. Others live in RVs or sleep in their cars. Some are temporarily staying with whomever will take them in.
And the consequences can be dire.
KPCC examined L.A. County coroner reports over a five-year period starting in 2010 and found that at least eight infants identified by officials as homeless have died sleeping in conditions experts call unsuitable, but were the families’ only option. Zah'Nyah was one of those children. The others include:
-August Aravena, who started his life in the home of his maternal grandmother. His family was kicked out after a fight. For a week, August slept in a car seat in the family car next to his older brother in the back seat. His parents slept in the front, according to official reports. On April 27, 2015, the dad got up and took the older boy to school. When he got back and checked the baby, he was dead. Like Zah'Nyah, August was 3 ½ months old.
-Dominique Chadwick, who slept in a car seat next to his family’s makeshift bed on a friend’s porch. On September 28, 2011, a coroner's report shows, his father got up in the morning and found Dominque had died. He was 7 months old.
-Lelah Hearn, who died as she slept on a pile of blankets on the floor of her uncle’s converted garage on August 20, 2013. She was 4 months old.
Even in a region that is publicly and actively wrestling with housing the homeless, the public focus is not on these children. Instead, it is primarily on the vexing problem – and blight -- of the chronically mentally ill homeless population.
But only about a third of L.A.’s roughly 47,000 homeless suffer from severe mental illness or have substance abuse problems that lead to long-term life on the street, according to the latest homeless census conducted in January 2016.
Chronically homeless people compared to the number of homeless families on CalWORKs
In fact, the number of people living on Skid Row – widely seen as the epicenter of homelessness in Los Angeles and the region’s biggest problem – are only about a third of the number of homeless families on CalWORKs. And about 20 percent of homeless families either don’t qualify or haven’t applied for CalWORKs.
Homeless families are everywhere in Los Angeles County.
Wade past the group of day laborers splitting a pizza by the baseball fields in Panorama Park, through the shopping carts lining the tennis courts, and into the men’s restroom and most days you’ll run across Allan Monteagudo, scraping spam and eggs off a spatula in a wash bin he fills with water from the stainless steel bathroom sink and rests on the dirty floor.
It isn’t easy with no hot water.
Lackee Salvago, left, and boyfriend Allan Monteagudo hold their 1-year-old son, Allan Jr., outside their RV at Panorama Park in Panorama City. Every 72 hours, the family must move the RV 100 feet to avoid a ticket from city parking enforcement.MAYA SUGARMAN / KPCC
Monteagudo, 43, lives with his girlfriend Lackee Salvago, teenaged son Aaron and the couple’s year-old baby A.J. in an RV, parked on the street.
Turning on the water in the RV is out of the question.
“It’s old,” Allan said. “It barely moves.”
Fortunately, it does — just enough to shuffle 100 feet every 72 hours and avoid a ticket from the parking enforcement agents who come by every day, chalking tires.
And that means for the past six months, it has served its purpose: a home for the family. Monteagudo hopes it’ll continue to be – though the city of Los Angeles has banned sleeping in cars and RVs on residential city streets. The prohibition goes into effect Jan. 7.
For now, Monteagudo and Salvago sleep in the RV’s full-size bed while A.J. Aaron curls up on the kitchen bench. They cook on portable stoves and drink bottled water. They shower at a nearby 24 Hour Fitness. The monthly fee is worth it for the showers.
Salvago sometimes works as an in-home caregiver.
But it’s hard.
Even before he was born, A.J. was diagnosed with a serious neurological condition, spina bifida. Doctors performed an emergency cesarean section and A.J. emerged with fluid in his brain. Doctors in East L.A. rushed him to Children's Hospital Los Angeles, where he spent months in the neonatal intensive care unit.
“He was always sick,” Monteagudo said.
A.J. recovered enough for doctors to send him home. But the family didn’t have one.
“We needed a place,” Monteagudo said. And they didn’t want to leave the L.A. doctors who were caring for the baby.
One-year-old Allan Monteagudo Jr. plays with his toys outside his family's RV at Panorama Park. Before he was born, A.J. was diagnosed with spina bifida, a serious neurological condition.MAYA SUGARMAN / KPCC
The growing family moved into a room, sharing a two-bedroom apartment in Panorama City with another couple, friends of friends. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates 38 percent of L.A. County’s children live in “crowded” households like this, with more people than rooms in the house, including the kitchen.
Those situations are considered bad for kids. Babies and toddlers don’t have space to move. It’s loud. There’s no privacy. Developmental, speech, and emotional delays are common, according to Stacey Scarborough, with Venice Family Clinic’s Head Start program.
These crowded households put families on the fragile precipice of homelessness. A dead car battery, an illness, a layoff or a bad argument frequently puts entire families out on the street. KPCC heard these stories repeatedly from homeless families.
For Monteagudo and Salvago, it happened when his two little girls from a previous relationship came to stay with them.
“My ex couldn’t care for them anymore,” Monteagudo said. So then there were six. In one bedroom. The couple who shared the flat wasn’t happy.
“It was noisy. They were trying to work,” Salvago acknowledged.
Then the landlord found out and jacked up the rent. But the family couldn’t afford more than the $650 they were already paying.
Monteagudo had quit his job to take care of the baby. The couple received $840 a month in CalWORKs, not quite enough for rent plus expenses, even with Salvago’s occasional income.
So the family of six moved out and started sleeping in their Ford Expedition. After three weeks, they traded it for a 1979 Dodge Pace Arrow RV.
“I got this to save my family,” Monteagudo said.
The number of displaced families in Southern California is growing exponentially:
- Families placed nearly 60,000 calls to L.A. county’s 211 line for help finding emergency shelter in 2015, double the number from three years earlier. The majority of these calls involved families with children under 5 and pregnant women.
- L.A. County officials estimate 8,000 women become homeless annually in the county at some point during pregnancy. There are only 69 dedicated beds for pregnant women in L.A. County, according to The Harvest Home, in Venice, which has room for about two dozen pregnant women a year. Workers there estimate they had to turn away about 500 pregnant women last year.
- The Orange County Department of Education said the number kids in O.C. public schools without a permanent place to live nearly tripled over the past decade, from 9,671 in 2005 to 26,064 in 2015. San Bernardino school officials counted 35,165 students who were homeless in 2015, also up nearly three-fold from 12,596 a decade ago. In Los Angeles County, the number of homeless students jumped from 34,080 in 2006 to 54,916 in 2015.
School districts across the country are required by the federal government to identify homeless children — their definition includes couch surfing and other weak housing arrangements. School administrators give the students backpacks of supplies and sometimes clothes, but they said they don’t have the means to do more.
“Our counselors, a lot of times feel that their hands are tied,” said Nancy Gutierrez, who heads the L.A. Unified School District’s homeless student’s office. Because the thing they need most is a home. And she said they can’t do much to help the kids with that.
Students in public schools who are homeless
Ellen Bassuk, a Harvard University associate professor of psychiatry who has done extensive research on homeless children, said the effects are well documented.
Children who experience homelessness are more likely to repeat a grade or two. They get suspended more. Their high school graduation rates are below 20 percent. They’re more likely to have health problems, like asthma.
“If you look at these kids long term,” she said, “they are set up for mental health and medical issues as they emerge into adulthood.”
Los Angeles County officials and nonprofit agencies said they are making an effort to find shelter and temporary homes for families once they become homeless. But they are swimming against the tide.
The annual homeless census turned up 1,807 newly homeless families in January 2015. A year later, officials counted up another 2,098 newly homeless families.
In 2016, women and children surpassed the number of single men seeking refuge at the Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row — the first time that’s happened in its 125-year history.
“L.A. needs to have a serious heart change,” said Andy Bales, the shelter’s chief executive officer.
“Studies show it,” he said. These homeless children “will be tomorrow’s future chronic homeless adults.”
Bales’ own father grew up living in a tent in Azusa.
"My dad, his last week on this earth, all he could talk about was the shame, the devastation and embarrassment of growing up as a child experiencing homelessness,” Bales recounted. “And that's what we're allowing to happen to our kids."
Among the homeless families are Tandra Dixon and her five children. They had been living in Nickerson Gardens, a public housing project in Watts, but Dixon said it got too dangerous. She found a house, but the rental fell through.
The nurse’s aide and hairdresser couldn’t find a job with enough flexibility to care for her kids. So for two years, they bounced around from shelters to motels.
Relatives and even her kids’ teachers pitched in to cover motel rooms. Her $525 a month CalWORKs check simply wasn’t enough.
The family slept in her Chevy Impala when it was the only option.
“We had to put the car seat in the trunk, three on the back seat, two on the front seat, I’ll hold J.J.,” her two-year-old, she recounted.
In September, her car was impounded.
Tandra Dixon's two-year-old son had been homeless since he was an infant.MAYA SUGARMAN / KPCC
Homelessness is the only life her toddler J.J. had ever known.
A few weeks ago, Dixon said J.J. found a $10 bill in her purse.
“And he wanted it and I had to tell him we have to use that to eat with,” she said. But the toddler had already mastered the web of social services that helped the family eat and challenged her.
“EBT mama,” he told her, referring to the food stamp cards poor families receive.
Her 15-year-old son Tyree carries everything he owns in his backpack, which he lugs everywhere he goes, accustomed to being on the move.
“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy, the situation of being homeless,” Dixon said, “especially when you have kids. Because they suffer worse than you do.”
It wasn’t that long ago that a poor family could get by on CalWORKs. In 1989, the maximum payout for a family of three — meaning two kids and a parent, the average caseload — was $694. If it had kept up with the cost of living, the grants would now be $1,300 a month.
Instead, that grant today is only $20 more than it was three decades ago.
Maximum monthly CalWORKs check or a family of three in California (1 adult + 2 children)
Trini Chaney has always struggled to keep a roof over her head, ever since she left an abusive home nearly three decades ago at the age of 17. But somehow, she said, it used to be easier.
“See, back in the day, the apartments were $525 for a one-bedroom,” she said. “You could find something.”
When she had her daughter 17 years ago, the nearly $600 monthly checks from CalWORKs helped keep her small family afloat.
“I was paying my rent. I was paying my bills. I was going to work and I had my single apartment,” she said “All off of CalWORKs, but the rent was cheap."
“Now? Everything’s a thousand and up,” she said.
State Senator Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles said raising CalWORKs grants simply is not a popular idea in Sacramento.
“There’s this notion that welfare is a gift that people are not worthy of,” she said. “I had a colleague one year who said if we could just give the money directly to the children.
“And my response to him was: I don’t know how many kids in your district pay the rent for the household,” she added.