Recession Through the Eyes of the Children

photo homeless shelter Union Rescue MissionCourtesy Union Rescue Mission

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.


"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.

VIDEO: Children: Struggling and Speaking OutPlay

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."

IMAGE: Life on the Edge - 20/20Play

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."

VIDEO: Students speak about the recessionPlay

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."

Teenagers Struggling: 'Is Anybody Listening?'

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.

But many students are suffering from stress because of the recession, something they said they were too embarrassed to admit until one day in Michael Steinman's Advanced Placement English class.

"We were talking about 'The Great Gatsby,'" Steinman recalled. "'Gatsby' is a book that deals with a lot of wealth and opulence, and the opportunity to get things by way of your wealth. And for a teacher it offers a way to delve into, you know, different topics, one of them being the American dream."

Steinman asked the class who among them had been seriously affected by the recession. He said almost all the students in the class raised their hands.

"They had very poignant stories to tell. Some kids even went so far as to reveal that they lost their home, they had to move in with relatives. ... I was very, very surprised to see so many kids were struggling with their families."

The teacher was so moved by their stories that he asked if they would share their experience and feelings with others. One by one, students took turns in front of the camera in their school's studio, resulting in a video they call "Is Anybody Listening?"

"We've all been affected by this economic crisis," Yvonne Bojorquez said in the video. "I mean, we're all college-bound students, right? The way things are going we're not going to be able to make it. We're all [becoming] businessmen and doctors and lawyers and all this great stuff and we have all this potential, but the way things are going, we're not going to be able to do that."

Many of the students are extremely emotional in the video, including 17-year-old Chris Schultz.

"We're like 4 months behind rent, and it's just my brothers, they might be homeless. I mean, I can get out, but my brothers," he said, breaking down into tears.

'I'm Really, Really Scared'

Victoria Gonzalez, a high school senior, cried as she explained, "Right now I am currently the only one that can support my family and can't. My mom won't let me get a job to help her, and I'm really, really scared that I might have to put off school for another year."

Victoria said that everyone was emotional while filming the video.

"I remember that day very vividly, you know, everybody was crying," she said. "I think it was because they all, we all realized that we're not alone in this."

Chris Schultz's father, Donald, is unemployed and trying to find a job as accountant. His mom is a teacher's assistant and doesn't make enough to cover the $900 monthly rent. Their apartment is so small that Chris sometimes gives up his bedroom and lets his little brothers Joseph and David, who has Down's Syndrome, sleep in his room.

He plans to join the Army in June but is worried that if his parents, who are behind in the rent, lose their apartment his little brothers will be homeless.

It was hard for his parents to watch the video. "I started crying. I didn't know he was stressed that much," Donald Schultz said.

In January the students posted "Is Anybody Listening?" on YouTube. It was viewed thousands of times.

Last Tuesday, while "20/20" was in the classroom interviewing the students, Steinman surprised the class by announcing that he had learned that President Obama had just given a major speech on education that morning and had mentioned the Village Academy High School, the video they made, and Yvonne in particular.

"He saw it!" Yvonne told the class.

Her fellow students erupted with applause and tears.

In the speech the president said, "It was heartbreaking that a girl so full of promise was so full of worry that she and her class titled their video 'Is Anybody Listening?' ... I am listening. We are listening. America is listening."

Thursday, in Pomona, the president met with the very excited students from Michael Steinman's English class.

The teenagers, so worried about their home lives, are thankful to their teacher for giving them a voice.

You gave us that courage to go for it and do it," said Victoria. "Thank you, Mr. Steinman."

For more information and to help children at the Union Rescue Mission, CLICK HERE, or call 213-347-6350.

To help the Village Academy High School students, send donations to:

The Village Project Fund

c/o Pomona Unified School District

P.O. Box 2900

Pomona, CA 91769

*Make checks payable to the Village Project Fund.

For more information on Everyone Deserves a Roof (EDAR) CLICK HERE.