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New Children's Center Keeps Homeless Toddlers Off San Diego's Streets

Two toddlers play with Play-Doh at the Rescue Mission's new Children's Center, Sept. 9, 2014.
Katie Schoolov
Two toddlers play with Play-Doh at the Rescue Mission's new Children's Center, Sept. 9, 2014.
New Preschool for Homeless Toddlers

Little Rebeka loves to play dress-up at her new preschool. She flutters around her classroom in pink butterfly wings and a purple princess dress. Bright, colorful books draw her attention. At 3 feet tall, her new surroundings are huge; there’s much to learn and explore.

The 2½-year-old and her 10 classmates attend the newly opened San Diego Rescue Mission Children’s Center.

Like most preschoolers, they’re mastering Play-Doh and learning their colors.

“This is an octopus, he squiggles in the water,” reads Christina Serafine to the enthusiastic children during circle time. “What color is he?” she asks the 2- to 5-year-olds.

New Children's Center Keeps Homeless Toddlers Off San Diego's Streets
A new children’s center for homeless toddlers in downtown San Diego means the little ones no longer have to endure tough, long days on the streets.
Two-year-old Rebeka plays dress-up in a purple princess dress and pink butterfly wings at the Rescue Mission's Children's Center, Sept. 9, 2014.
Katie Schoolov
Two-year-old Rebeka plays dress-up in a purple princess dress and pink butterfly wings at the Rescue Mission's Children's Center, Sept. 9, 2014.

“Purple!” Rebeka blurts out proudly, as her classmates erupt in applause.

“Yay, Rebeka!” affirms Serafine, the center’s lead teacher and director.

In addition to being classmates, the children share another commonality: They all come from homeless families.

“I’m amazed at the resiliency of these young children,” said Herb Johnson, president and CEO of the Rescue Mission, a non-profit organization that runs a downtown transitional housing program and an emergency overnight shelter for women and children.

“Our shelter, every single night, we’re housing some place around 50 to 60 kids in this building, between our regular program and the emergency shelter.”

The overnight shelter on Elm Street near downtown is only licensed to be open from 7 at night until 7 the next morning; for 12 hours during the day, moms with toddlers and babies were on the streets — their belongings stuffed in strollers.

Johnson said creating the Children’s Center was essential for providing a safe and nurturing environment.

“And have as close as they can, some sense of normalcy for what other children are going through at that age,” Johnson said.

In order to allow the children to stay on the premises, a new license was required.

“So we went to City Council a couple of months back,” Johnson explained. “The City Council voted unanimously to change our conditional use permit so that we could have this center.”

Under the new permit, mothers residing at the emergency shelter are still required to be out the door by 7 a.m. But kids enrolled in the Children's Center can stay, "rather than having mothers transport them around the city with them all day,” Johnson said.

Much of the funding for the project came from donations and grants.

“Sometimes when you’re in the trenches, as we are here of running an operation from day to day, you don’t have a good idea of how people around the city feel about you. We found out,” Johnson said, choking back tears, "and it was an extraordinary experience."

Education is a big part of the program.

“So that when they go to school, they’re at grade level in first grade,” said Johnson. “Not behind two or three years, which is the probable outcome for kids who don’t have access to that kind of educational form.”

Baby Rebeka stands near her mother, Robin Gorman, at the Rescue Mission's emergency shelter for women and children, April 2013.
Katie Schoolov
Baby Rebeka stands near her mother, Robin Gorman, at the Rescue Mission's emergency shelter for women and children, April 2013.

For Rebeka’s mom, Robin Gorman, it means an opportunity to work on ending her homeless cycle.

“This is actually opening up just in time for me to do everything that I had wanted to do,” Gorman said. “Go to school, get my GED, get my job training, maybe even go to college.”

A year ago, Gorman and Rebeka spent their nights at the emergency shelter and their days on the streets. Now, they’ve secured long-term housing at the Rescue Mission’s Women and Children’s Center.

“It was just fate that I ended up going to the WCC because I was at the end of my rope,” Gorman said.

She said she’s happy to see her little girl thriving.

“This will help her learn many skills that will be useful in school and in life,” Gorman said.

Preschool skills often come harder for homeless kids, Serafine said. “They just don’t get the opportunity to explore their environment, to use materials, to ask questions, to be curious,” she said.

Serafine said some of their students have language delays and social and emotional distress.

“So we plan to help get the services they need in order to overcome those challenges that they’re facing already,” she said.

The center is licensed for 11 children, but the goal is to accommodate three times as many in the coming months, including an infant room.

The need is high, Johnson said.

The number of homeless families in San Diego has skyrocketed this year.

“We saw a 7 percent increase,” said Dolores Diaz, executive director of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, which keeps an annual census on the county’s homeless population.
“Our shelters were full this year when we did the count."

Wearing butterfly wings and a princess dress, 2-year-old Rebeka looks at books at the Rescue Mission's new Children's Center, Sept. 9, 2014.
Katie Schoolov
Wearing butterfly wings and a princess dress, 2-year-old Rebeka looks at books at the Rescue Mission's new Children's Center, Sept. 9, 2014.

Diaz said a lack of low-income housing and high rental costs are contributing factors.

“There are a lot of families that come to service providers that need assistance that are on that brink, and if something doesn’t happen we’re going to see that number increase,” Diaz said, adding that one solution is “rapid rehousing.”

“Research shows that when you help families right when they’re at crisis point, and you assist them with security deposits, short-term rental assistance — something to just sort of kick-start rapidly rehousing them, this works for families.”

Back at the Rescue Mission Children’s Center, Rebeka is learning to share and make new friends. And she's taking advantage of her new opportunity to soar.

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