There is a temptation to romanticize times of economic crisis — to focus on how families learn to get by with less and gain a new appreciation of small pleasures once taken for granted.
That’s true to an extent. Certainly, kids can live without video games, iPods and skinny jeans.
But food, health care, education and a decent, safe place to live are not luxury items that kids can do without. Yet as The Tribune’s recent three-day series, Broken Hearths, pointed out, a growing number of kids can’t even count on having a warm bed at night.
Of the many sobering statistics included in the series, here’s one that stands out: Every major school district in San Luis Obispo County has seen the number of homeless children in its district rise dramatically over the past couple of years.
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In Paso Robles, for example, the number of homeless students climbed to 348 in 2009-10, from 42 in 2007-08 — an increase of more than 700 percent.
That doesn’t mean that all these children are living in cars or under bridges; many families are doubling up or tripling up in small homes and apartments. While these children at least have roofs over their heads, other stresses come with cramming two or three families into one home. For starters, forget about finding a quiet place to study or even getting a good night’s sleep.
As we saw in the series, homelessness isn’t the only heartbreaking problem affecting a growing number of county residents. Other families hurt by the economy — through layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts — may be holding on to their homes, but still struggle to pay bills, put gas in the car and food on the table.
As much as parents may try to shield their children from these realities — attempting to keep life as normal as possible — kids are quick to realize something is wrong.
Some children profiled in the series are thriving in spite of the financial problems that have hit their families, and have even found ways to help by bringing in money through part-time jobs.
But not all children are so resilient. Several professionals reported seeing an increase in aggression, drug use, depression, lethargy, acting out in school and a variety of other problems.
Making matters worse, government agencies and nonprofits are unable to provide adequate levels of assistance — including mental health counseling — that would help families cope in these anxious times.
All agencies — public and private — are dealing with limited resources, but we cannot compound kids’ problems with further cuts to programs such as emergency food and shelter, mental health counseling and day care.
At a very minimum, we must preserve safety-net programs already in place — and we urge sending that message to Sacramento.
We recognize that the ultimate solution is to fix the economy, but as we debate how to do that, let’s not lose sight of some of the most vulnerable victims of this crisis: our kids.