Three-year-old Shema Kakiza once lived in a beautiful Los Angeles town house with her mother and father, a small business owner who used to work for the famous Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles. Now Shema plays on the roof of the Union Rescue Mission, the city's largest homeless shelter where she and her family were forced to move in October.
TO HELP THE CHILDREN FEATURED IN THIS STORY, CLICK HERE.
"I'm pretending it's my backyard," said Shema, who is one of the more than 120 children currently living at the shelter. She is also one of more than a million children expected to become homeless in America this year, according to Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
With two floors of the shelter already full, Andy Bales, the CEO of the Mission, said he has had to resort to pitching tents wherever he can find space, including inside the shelter's chapel. The tents are 7 feet long by 3 feet wide, and can house up to four people, or one family.
These tents are built and given out free to homeless shelters and individuals by a charity called Everyone Deserves A Roof (EDAR).
"We had this huge influx of families, and so we put them to work inside the mission to house families," Bales said. "Evictions, foreclosures, unemployment, eventually you add those things up and you turn homeless."
About 60 families are currently living at the shelter, and about half of them are homeless for the first time.
Louis Guzman, 5, and his little sister Valeria, 3, also live at Union Rescue Mission. Their parents lost their jobs at LAX airport along with both their cars and their home.
"It has been a nightmare," their mother, Aura Guzman, said. "I never thought I was going to end up in this place. And this is the last place I wanted to be."
Louis and Valeria use the shelter's library of donated videos and books as substitutes for the toys they had to leave behind.
"I wish I was home," he said. "We don't have homes. … We just have a room here."
Colin Kakiza, Shema's father, wound up at the shelter after a perfect storm of economic misfortunes. His small business failed, his apartment building was foreclosed on and he depleted his savings.
Kakiza said he "watched it disappear. In a flash."
The Kakiza family lived in cheap motels for several weeks until their finances ran out and they turned to the shelter as a last resort.
He told his daughter that "we're going through a rough time now, and this is going be home for a while ... and she asks questions like, you know, where's our backyard, where are my toys."
After living at the Mission for a few weeks, Kakiza decided to put his experience in the hotel industry to good use, and he now works as hospitality director for the shelter, helping to welcome the flood of new homeless families.
"It still shocks me," he said about being homeless. "It could happen to anyone."
In nearby Pomona, Calif., the teenagers at Village Academy High School are also struggling with the economic situation.
The school was recognized by U.S. News and World Report as one of America's top 500 high schools in the nation. It has a low dropout rate, about 3 percent, and a high rate of students going to college, about 70 percent.