In and out of classrooms, sleeping in shelters, shielded by parents, homeless children can seem invisible to society at large.
A national study released Monday finds that 1 in 50 children in the United States is homeless. They're sharing housing because of economic hardship, living in motels, cars, abandoned buildings, parks, campgrounds or shelters, or waiting for foster care placement.
"That is something that I don't think most people intuitively believe to be true," said Ellen Bassuk, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and president of the National Center on Family Homelessness.
The national center last did such a report 10 years ago, and numbers of children without a permanent place to sleep are growing.
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Herb Opalek, chief executive officer of the Merced County Rescue Mission and president of the Pacific District of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, which has 72 in California, said there's no doubt the number of homeless children is on the rise.
"In speaking to directors all across California, they're all seeing an increase in (homeless) children," he said Monday. "We just had a discussion about this last week."
At the Modesto Gospel Mission, Barbara Deatherage agreed that numbers of homeless children are up.
"We participate in a snapshot survey every year for the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions," she said. "This last year, I noticed that our percentage of homeless under 18 was substantially higher than our national average."
She was out of town Monday and couldn't give specific numbers. But, she said: "What we are seeing a really big increase in is those resourcing our community distribution center for clothing and food. We probably see 2,000 to 3,000 people a month now. We also have an increase in the number of children coming to have dinner with their families."
On Monday, Genie Garcia and her four children were getting ready for the shelter's 5 p.m. dinner.
Garcia said she first ended up homeless in 2007 and has bounced around since then, staying with family, friends and at the Gospel Mission's women and children's shelter.
She receives $555 monthly in cash assistance, not enough to rent an apartment big enough for her family, she said.
"I wish there were more people that would help you, instead of just judge you on how many kids you have," said Garcia.
'Kind of not understandable'
Her 10-year-old twins, Tammy and Jessy, have different takes on their situation. The sisters are fifth-graders at a Modesto elementary school.
Tammy called being homeless "like living in the wild." But she said she likes meeting new people and friends at the shelter. The beds there are comfortable, Tammy said, especially when she sleeps with her teddy bear.
Jessy said the upheaval in her family's life is "aggravating" and "not fun." She only talks to her best friend about it. "It's kind of not understandable," said Jessy.
Maris Sturtevant is chief operating officer of the United Samaritans Foundation, which feeds people throughout Stanislaus County and provides services to homeless people in Turlock.
"I couldn't define how many more children are homeless, but there are more people using the services of our trucks and our lunch program than before," she said.
"In 2007, we served 408,000 lunches. In 2008, we served 422,000. So, a big increase. We're certainly seeing an increase in our emergency food boxes, too."
In Merced County, Opalek said: "We used to have four or five children come for breakfast every morning. Now there can be anywhere from 12 to 20. You see more of them in the (homeless) camps out here.
"I've seen an increase in homeless children all over the county. You can see them in alleys, in streets, at food lines, at churches. It's only going to get worse, unfortunately."
The national center's study, America's Youngest Outcasts, shows that California had 292,624 homeless children, the 10th-largest population in the nation, during the time of its count, the 2005-06 school year. The group counted 1.5 million homeless kids across the country, about 200,000 more than a decade before.
'Close your eyes and pray'
Bassuk, the Harvard professor, said family and child homelessness is a "relatively new problem," largely the result of more families splintering and becoming impoverished.
"Many more of these families are headed by females. ... They tend to be a lot poorer," Bassuk said, citing a lack of affordable housing and a dearth of social programs geared toward families and children.
The national report makes a raft of recommendations for federal and state policy planners to deal with the issue. Among other things, it calls for programs that would give needy people better access to affordable housing, increases in nutrition programs for homeless children, expanded health services for families, and improved access to early childhood education.
"The very first thing we need to do is make sure that people realize that we do have a problem, and focus more planning efforts on families and kids," said Bassuk.
Opalek, when asked if there is an answer to the problem, said, "Close your eyes and pray," then added, "What needs to be done is for all the nonprofit and faith-based agencies to get together with the government to work out some way to allow us to handle the programs until money comes back into the system.
"It's so crucial for government agencies and nonprofit agencies to convene ... and see how we can supplement each other. We're all doing it independently right now. Let's see what we can do working together to help all these people."
Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht contributed to this report.