Homeless Children of the Recession, 1 Year Later

Gus Hernandez Sr., and Jr. are still living at El Dorado Motel in Salinas, California.
Gus Hernandez Sr., and Jr. are still living at El Dorado Motel in Salinas, California.

For a time last year, 11-year-old Tristen Clarke and 9-year-old Gus Hernandez, Jr. where the best of friends. Through the lives of these two boys, we can see the progress the nation's economy has made this past year, and the distance left to go.

When we first met Tristen and Gus, they were living at the El Dorado Motel in Salinas, Calif. CBS News chief national correspondent Byron Pitts reports they were brought together by the hard knocks of the recession - job losses left both families homeless.

A year ago, Tristen said, "We can't afford food." At times, things felt pretty desperate. Tristen said he thought about life and death, "Because I gave up trying."

What a difference a year can make. Tristen's mother Rhonda finally found a job as a salesperson, after a long year of looking in a depressed area with high unemployment.

"I'm happy because I have a new life," he said recently.

His spirits and his grades have soared too. Although he is repeating 5th grade, this year he's done so well, he'll be attending the Junior National Young Leaders Conference in Washington, D.C.

It gets better. No longer does he sleep on an air mattress at the motel. Now his walk home from school ends at the doorstep of their own studio apartment.

Across town, however, Gus Hernandez, Jr. is still at the motel with his family.

According to the latest statistics the number of homeless children seeking help in Salinas jumped from 308 last year to 425 so far this year. One reason: while the national unemployment rate has stayed level at nearly 10 percent, unemployment rose in Salinas from 14.8 percent last year to 16.8 percent this year.

Gus' father, Gus Sr., is still working at the motel and picked up a side job as a handyman. The toll on the family has been immeasurable. Last year Gus Jr. had frequent angry outbursts, and he was doing poorly in school.

This year his grades have improved. But being a child and homeless is still painfully difficult. Last year Gus was frustrated because friends at the motel are hard to keep - they keep moving away.

The hurt for Gus Jr. doesn't end. Now, he says he doesn't remember Tristen.

There are more than 20 other families living at the motel. Since our report a year ago,the City of Salinas and community volunteers have joined forces in mentoring Gus and over two dozen other homeless children in the motel's new community room. It's a hopeful sign.

Tonight, 9-year-old Gus Hernandez, Jr. will go to sleep at the motel again -hopeful that more change will come. For now, he and his family have little else.

For those interested in donating to homeless families in the Salinas City Elementary School District, (SCESD) donations can be sent to:

Salinas City Elementary School District
Attn: Cheryl Camany
Homeless Liaison
District Outreach Consultant
Dropout Prevention Specialist
840 S. Main Street
Salinas, CA 93901

Checks can be made out to "SCESD"

Please include a letter about exactly to whom or to what you'd like the donation to go toward. The donations can be specific or general to help homeless children.