A Conversation Between a Mother and Her Son, Both of Whom Are Homeless

Danielle Parker lost her job, apartment and car in 2013. She and her son, Christian, would sleep with family members and sometimes in a vehicle. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

Christian Lee is a fourth-grader at Richmond College Prep. He excels in math, is a good reader and can draw pretty well. He even skipped kindergarten because he was ahead of his class.

He is also considered homeless.

In a conversation with his mother, Danielle Parker, 8-year-old Christian says he thinks about being homeless while in school.

"It makes me feel kind of sad," he tells her. "That's one of the reasons I'm kind of distracted a lot because I'm really focused on that."

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Hearing these stories is important to understanding how to help the families and children who deal with long commutes, tired eyes or stress in school and life as a result of being homeless.

In California alone, nearly 300,000 children experience homelessness throughout the school year in some form, according to KidsData. That growing number also shows that a majority of the state's homeless students are in elementary schools, like Christian.

But many people don't know much about who these children are or what their stories sound like.

Erica Mohan, who founded Community Education Partnerships in 2010 to help tutor Bay Area homeless students, says many people she speaks with about youth homelessness initially think of families living on the street, which is just one way that homelessness can look.

“We need to challenge those stereotypes. And I think once we do that we’re going to find people willing to engage with homeless families and get the help and support that they need,” says Mohan.

There are several definitions of what student homelessness actually looks like, according to the federal McKinney-Vento Act. Included are students "who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence," which may mean they live with relatives, in an emergency shelter or in a motel.

In fact, most homeless youth live in families that are "doubled up," or live with other families in the same household, according to the National Center for Homeless Education.

The effects that different types of stress and trauma can have on children have been well documented, along with the impact of homelessness and poverty on young people trying to learn.

Some people, like those involved in the California Homeless Youth Project, have argued that understanding homelessness as its own separate issue is important to understanding  the unique needs of homeless children and families.

Stories like Danielle's and Christian's help us form the emotional connection to all the numbers and data that are used to make change.

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The story of Danielle and Christian came out of KQED's Oakland Open Newsroom, where we asked the public for their story ideas.

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