Monday, Dec. 20, 2010 | 2:01 a.m.
Last summer, Courtney Speed, then 18, was living with her mother and three younger siblings in a Ford Taurus in the parking lot of the World’s Largest Gift Shop on Sahara Avenue and the Strip. Courtney’s mother thought that because it was so well-lit, they’d be safe.
Social service agencies referred Courtney to the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, where she found housing and enrolled in the Virtual High School, an online school from which she’ll graduate next year. Courtney’s mother, sister and two brothers got some assistance from HELP Nevada for an apartment, where they’re living rent-free through January.
Crisis averted, for now.
When Courtney Speed talks about her youngest brother, who is 4, she tears up. “I feel bad for him the most,” she says. And she is right to.
A hidden reality of the Great Recession is the toll it is taking on children and family life, extending from physical well-being and safety to psychological health and academic achievement.
Experts say young children, and those kicked from the middle class down into persistent poverty, are the most damaged, with the effect reverberating for years.
A report by Michael Linden of the child advocacy group First Focus says children living in poverty because of a recession are three times more likely to be poor as adults than other children.
In other words, the effects of this painful recession, even when it ends, will be felt in Nevada for years, decades even, experts say.
“Poverty can have lingering effects as they become adults,” says Julia Isaacs, a Brookings Institution fellow who studies child poverty.
Nationally, at least 8.1 million children are living with at least one unemployed parent, according to the Brookings Institution. But as with much else during this downturn, the situation here is worse than nearly anywhere else.
Isaacs estimates that 104,000 Nevada children, or 16 percent, are living with an unemployed parent, compared with 10 percent nationwide.
Childhood poverty is rising rapidly, from 15 percent as the recession began, to an estimated 20 percent this year. The portion of Clark County schoolchildren receiving free or reduced-priced lunch has increased from 39 percent to more than 50 percent.
In a report written this year, Isaacs offered a stark assessment of these trends: Children living in recession-induced poverty are 15 percent less likely to finish high school and 20 percent less likely to finish college than their better-off peers. They’re also more likely to experience homelessness and child abuse, and less likely to climb out of poverty as adults.
Social scientists don’t have a clear answer why this is, but they point to a few potential causes:
• Stressed-out parents have fewer psychic resources to be good parents.
“If mom’s not OK, then everybody’s not OK,” says Stephanie Holland, a psychologist who works with children and families and is a co-founder of Child Focus, which tries to reunite siblings in foster care.
Stephanie Coontz, a professor of family studies at Evergreen State College in Washington, also takes this view. She cites polling showing how economic dislocation is leading to heightened stress. In a New York Times poll of the unemployed, more than half report insomnia and say they have been more likely to have conflict with family and friends. In the same poll, women were more likely experiencing depression and anxiety, while men said they were more likely to feel ashamed.
All of this has short- and long-term effects on children, Coontz thinks. In the short term, living through unemployment causes a child to be 15 percent more likely to be held back a grade, according to a University of California, Davis, study.
Coontz also points to a rise in domestic violence as a worrisome trend with potential long-term effects. Although crime here, as in the rest of the country, has drifted downward during the recession, aggravated assaults in Metro Police’s jurisdiction were up 2.6 percent last year. Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie says Metro has analyzed the increase and attributes it to a rise in domestic violence, which he blames on the economy.
• Lack of essential goods and services. Unemployed parents may move to a worse neighborhood. They may have to cut back on food. Indeed, in a Gallup survey,
18.5 percent of American households report not always having enough money to buy food. Parents may not be able to afford books or educational toys, eyeglasses or trips to the dentist or pediatrician. Children hungry or with toothaches tend to suffer academically.
Holland says her latest concern is the rising number of child neglect cases. She offers up her own depressing statistic: In the past four years, the number of children requiring some out-of-home care has decreased 7.8 percent nationally, whereas in Nevada, the number is up 9.3 percent.
• Instability is bad for children. Although children can be adaptive and resilient, especially if their parents show these traits, moving homes and schools can also be highly disruptive.
Despite the daunting atmosphere, many struggling Nevada parents are doing what they can to survive and give their children a better future. The Sun interviewed parents and children, clergy, social service workers and nonprofit volunteers to understand the daily struggle.
HELP of Southern Nevada provides assistance to 100,000 people a year, including such things as emergency help on rent and utility bills, and long-term assistance with job training and placement.
The organization has a special program to help families give Christmas gifts to their children. Shortly after 8 a.m. recently at the location on Flamingo Road, caseworkers and volunteers, including a group of homeless teenagers who volunteer as part of their program, greet the people and help them with paperwork.
Tanya Lopez and her husband have a blended family of seven children, ages 13, 11, 10, 9, 7, 4 and 2. On this chilly morning, she’s wearing hospital scrubs for her unpaid externship. She’s studying to be a medical assistant while working at Denny’s, although her hours were recently cut.
Her husband lost his good-paying job at Tuscany’s and makes $10 per hour in security. They lost their home to foreclosure.
“If I can make the rent and keep them fed and warm, I’m happy,” she says. She fills out the forms with a sense of urgency and fights off the emotions.
A sign on the door at HELP of Southern Nevada informs people that if they received help in 2008 and 2009, they cannot get assistance this year. The sign continues: “Happy holidays and best of luck in 2011.”
A bit more than a week before Christmas, Catholic Charities is running low on toys and clothes, even as 50 families — mostly moms — wait in line.
Dalia Trejo is here with two of her five children, Evelin Camarena, 4, and Cristal Camarena, 3. They come away with pink jackets and hats and gloves. Cristal is shy, while Evelin hams it up for a photographer.
Trejo’s husband was in residential construction until he was laid off a year ago, unable to find work since.
Trejo’s 10-month-old son was born three months prematurely and still has respiratory problems. “The doctors say he’s getting better, but I can tell you he’s not,” she says through an interpreter.
“I’m worried about our children. We’re trying to keep afloat, paying rent and utilities and the bills from our sick baby. Yes, I’m worried,” Trejo says.
And yet, she mentions the need to help feed the neighbor children, also stricken with job loss and foreclosures. (The New York Times recently reported this paradox: Those who make less than $25,000 a year give a bigger portion of their income to charity than those who make more than $75,000.)
“I say thank you and appreciate all the help I’ve been receiving,” she says.
Leslie Carmine, spokeswoman for Catholic Charities, says food distribution doubled from June 2009 to June 2010. A few years ago, the clients were often homeless. Now they are unemployed or underemployed.
The food bank
At the Progressive Pilgrim Fellowship on a recent day, people of all ages are lined up early to get a food basket. Mary Chaney says that in 2007 it served 300. Now it serves 1,010 a month, including 100 children age 3 or younger.
Carlotta Brooks, 47, is a certified nursing assistant at acute-care hospitals who was out of work because of thyroid surgery and is struggling to find another job. She volunteers at the food bank.
For Julie Murray, CEO of the massive food nonprofit Three Square, Brooks and her volunteerism in the face of unemployment symbolizes how the community has reacted to the crisis.
“I’ve never seen our community come together the way it has around food,” Murray says, citing healthy fundraising and volunteer rosters. Through nearly 290 agencies, Three Square feeds more than 95,000 Nevadans every month.
Brooks lives with her 21-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter. “It’s stressful for me not being able to provide. Thank God I can volunteer. It feels good to do that.”
Grace and Rudy Zabala are standing in line at Progressive Pilgrim. The Zabalas are raising four granddaughters, ages 10 to 17. Their son, the girls’ father, sees them and helps out, but their mother is gone.
Rudy Zabala was a longtime trucking company employee, but was forced to retire last summer.
The food bank helps, Grace says. “The girls are all growing fast, and they eat and eat and eat.”
Rudy pipes in, talking up his granddaughters, who never ask for anything, he says.
The oldest, they say, will graduate with honors and wants to be a forensic scientist.
Karl Rostron came to Las Vegas from Utah and looks fit and trim. He was doing job training in rural areas there, but followed his wife here and into a radically different kind of social work — a morass of problems he could hardly comprehend. He has been working with homeless youth since late 2008.
“To be plopped down into Nevada, and its homeless youth, was jarring. I wasn’t used to seeing children 16 or 17, with their own children, homeless. And the abuse. The human trafficking,” he says, still sounding baffled by it.
Because of the recession, “children feel like they have to carry the load and look for work and put school aside. People are asking children to fend for themselves. That was another thing I had to get used to.”
The work is draining, and he brings it home, he says. “I look at every kid I pass on the street and say, ‘Is that a kid I’m missing, that I’ve lost?’ ”
In December, when he helps orchestrate the Christmas giving program, he listens to stories of hardship. “The despair,” he says.
Although they’re less busy this year — they suspect many impoverished people have left town — they’ve seen an uptick in middle-class clients for the first time. “The loss of hope on the part of professionals — it’s striking.”
In the end, it’s fulfilling work, Rostron says.
There are the children who get their GED and a job or even a college diploma.
And then there are the families that feel desperate and didn’t think anyone could help them.
“They hug you. They break down and thank you. It gets you through it.”
The Rev. Ralph Williamson confronts a paradox. During the boom years, his congregation raised money for a new church in North Las Vegas. It’s an inspiring monument to spiritual uplift. By the time it was finished, however, the economy was in free fall, and the minority community served by the First African Methodist Episcopal was being hit hardest.
In fall 2009, its food bank was serving 242 households. Now it’s up to 396. People begin lining up three hours early. A reliable crew of 26 volunteers packages and distributes the food.
“It’s causing further destabilization of families that were already unstable,” Williamson says.
His spirituality is no weak tea. He tells his congregants they are too often focused on wants, instead of needs. He tells them to beware indebtedness, a “slave mentality.”
(Unfortunately, Williamson provides a perfect example of what the economist John Maynard Keynes called “the paradox of thrift,” e.g., what’s needed right now is more consumer spending to get the economy going, even though for individuals and families, restraint and paying down debt are clearly the more rational path.)
Despite his spiritual toughness, his is a message of hope, Williamson says. “They come looking for hope. And all my messages are messages of hope.”
Father Richard Rinn at St. Viator Catholic Church says his congregants have responded to the call. The parish offers short-term assistance on utilities and rent and such, while Catholic Charities offers a full menu of social services.
Rinn can do little but listen, and empathize as best he can, he says. “A man in front of you has lost his job and sent out 50 resumes. He’s doing all the right things. The worry is real.”
He avoids the clichés. “I’m not into this idea that this is part of God’s plan. I don’t think it’s God plan to have people go hungry. Wherever a tragedy hits, people say, ‘This is God’s plan.’ I go slow with that. I don’t think God is programming tragedy.”
The social service directors
Barbara Buckley, the outgoing speaker of the Assembly, also directs the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada. For whatever the rigors of herding the Legislature and dealing with recent budget crises, her description of trying to help families in legal distress sounds at least as difficult.
“Every day, it’s a tsunami. Families in distress. Domestic violence. ‘Debt collectors hounding me.’ ‘I don’t know what to do.’ ‘My spouse wants a divorce.’ ‘I’m being sued.’ ‘I’ve just been laid off.’ The stress. You can feel it,” she says. Legal Aid also serves as court-appointed counsel for children who are the victims of alleged abuse, a heartbreaking source of clients.
In January, Legal Aid, in conjunction with the courts, set up a self-help legal center in the courthouse — 29,000 people have sought help at that location alone.
“Almost all are families in crisis. Evicted. Foreclosed on. Sued. Mostly due to job loss.
“And the pressure on the families is palpable.”
Buckley has a message for the legislators going to Carson City next year: “Don’t forget the people in distress back in your districts.”
Jeremy Hynds, the stoical young program director of the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, says visits to the partnership’s transitional living house near UNLV have more than doubled in the past year.
He attributes it to the bad economy, with more families coming in, as well as teenagers on the verge of adulthood kicked out of their homes because of financial problems, or stress-induced abuse or neglect.
The partnership offers emergency housing but also longer-term independent living for 16 teens who work or go to school full time or do some combination of both.
Teens such as Courtney Speed.
Speed, who, you recall, had been living in her car with her mother, is on a new track. She has new friends — all teens in the program — and she hopes to go to film school and do something creative. She writes lyrics about life as a teen.
“She’s a sweet kid,” Hynds says. Indeed she is.
The question for Nevada is, how many Courtney Speeds are out there, alone? And what will become of them?