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Homeless children: The hard times generation

Hard times generation: Homeless kids 14:04

This story was first published March 6, 2011. It was updated on June 20, 2011.

Unemployment continues to hover around nine percent and job creation is so slow, it'll be years before we get back the seven and a half million jobs lost in the Great Recession. American families have been falling out of the middle class in record numbers.

The combination of lost jobs and millions of foreclosures means a lot of folks are homeless and hungry for the first time in their lives. One of the consequences of the recession that you don't hear much about is the record number of children descending into poverty. The government considers a family of four to be impoverished if they take in less than $22,000 a year. Based on that standard, and the government projections of unemployment, it is estimated that the poverty rate for kids in this country will soon hit 25 percent.

As we first reported last march, those children would be the largest American generation to be raised in hard times since the Great Depression.

The hidden America
It's hard to watch Scott Pelley's reporting on homeless kids without being moved to tears.

Resources in Seminole County:
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Families in Transition
Feeding America

In Seminole County, near Orlando, Fla., so many kids have lost their homes that school busses now stop at dozens of cheap motels where families crowd into rooms, living week to week.

Destiny Corfee, 11, joined the line at one local motel a year ago. "I never really noticed what people were actually going through until now; until we're actually going through it too," she told "60 Minutes" correspondent Scott Pelley.

Destiny's parents David and Theresa never imagined their family homeless. Together they were making about $40 an hour detailing expensive cars. There was a three-bedroom home, vacations and extras for the kids. But both jobs went, and then the house. Evicted, they found that the homeless shelters wanted to split their family up - boys and girls.

"That was definitely something that I wasn't gonna have, was being separated at a time like this. I figured the time like this that we needed to be together more than anything," David Corfee said.

So David, Theresa, Destiny, Jorge and Chance, moved into their van.

"I was embarrassed that maybe one of my friends might see me. I don't want anybody to know that I was actually in there," Destiny told Pelley.

The van, according to Destiny, was parked at a WalMart.

Extra: Hitting hard times
Extra: Finding strength while homeless

"We would actually go in WalMart and clean our self up before we'd go to school," her brother Jorge remembered.

"How would you do that?" Pelley asked.

"I would like wash my face, and like, take a tissue and wash my arms and stuff," Jorge explained.

"We would bring the toothpaste and the toothbrush and the brushes so we'll go brush our hair in the mirror and people would see us," Destiny added. "And it would be kind of weird. But we worked through it."

"Tell me about the motel that you're living in now," Pelley said.

"Well, it's a lot better than the van!" Destiny replied.

But Jorge pointed out the living space is small: two rooms for the five of them. Their possessions, family photos - you name it - went into storage. And they lost it all, seized and sold, when they couldn't pay that bill.

"Most of my stuff was in there; my scooter, my game system, all my games, my clothes. So I lost most of my stuff," Jorge said.

"I had so many of my toys and things. My Barbie dolls, clothes, and it was just all gone," Destiny said.

The neighborhood around the motel is scary, she added. "You hear on the news all the time about shootings, and it's all right there."

Produced by Robert G. Anderson, Nicole Young and Daniel RuetenikNationwide, 14 million children were in poverty before the Great Recession. Now, the U.S. Census tells us its 16 million - up two million in two years. That is the fastest fall for the middle class since the government started counting 51 years ago.

One of the areas suffering the most is otherwise advertised as "The Happiest Place on Earth," the counties around Disney World and Orlando. Just on Highway 192, the road to Disney World, 67 motels house about 500 homeless kids. The government counts them homeless if they have only temporary shelter.

In Seminole County schools, 1,000 students have recently lost their homes.

At Casselberry Elementary School, students whose families are at the poverty level or slightly above qualify for the free lunch program. We talked with some of those kids with their parents' permission.

When Pelley asked a group of students how many of them had gone to bed hungry in the last few weeks, many put their hands up.

Pelley got a number of responses when he asked, "Who can tell me what it's like to feel hungry?"

"It's hard. You can't sleep. You just wait, you just go to sleep for like five minutes and you wake up again. And your stomach hurts, and you're thinking 'I can't sleep. I'm going to try and sleep, I'm going to try and sleep,' but you can't 'cause your stomach's hurting. And it's cause it doesn't have any food in it."

"And it's like a black hole. And sometimes when I don't eat, my stomach, you can hear it's like growling. You can hear it."

"Usually we eat macaroni, or we don't or we drink water or tea."

"My mom will sometimes make food and then she won't have enough so at night we'll just eat cereal or something. Other times, my parents will fight about money 'cause they don't have enough money to pay the food."

"We have to sometimes take food from a church. It's hard because my grandmother's also out of work and we usually get some food from her."

"It's kind of embarrassing because the next day, you go to school asking kids if they want this, or if they want that. If they have cereal and they haven't opened it yet, you go ask them if they want their cereal."

We found a lot of families are making a choice between food and electricity: when Pelley asked how many of them had the lights turned off at their house, nearly all students put their hands up.

"How do you study when you don't have the lights on at home?" Pelley asked.

"We have emergency flashlights, and I usually have to use them," one student explained.

"I'll just light candles and sit around in a circle of candles," another said.

And another said, "I go out to the car and turn on the overhead and read out there and study."

Ashley Rhea raised her hand to add something that we didn't expect: "I kind of feel like it's my fault that we don't have enough money. I feel like it's my fault that they have to pay for me. And the clothes that they buy for me."

"They're believing it's their fault that they in this situation," Beth Davalos told Pelley.

Davalos runs the Seminole County programs for homeless kids. "Our numbers go up every day. Between five and 15 new homeless students a day," she explained.

And she told us something else is new: "When I first started this program eight years ago, homelessness lasted maybe two, three months. But now with it lasting three, six months, a year or two years, this is when children are developing who they are and their foundation is broken."

When asked how these students are doing in school, Davalos said, "They're struggling, it's much harder. They're more at risk for not doing well. They're focusing on 'How can I help mom and dad?' We have so many students that want to quit school and go to work."

Davalos is working to keep Jacob Braverman on track in school. His family lost their house suddenly in October. When he got off the bus that day, the door was locked.

"That was the last thing that I expected," he told Pelley.

His mother, Rosa, lost her job. But the eviction was a shock. The bank told Rosa she had 30 days, but it was five days later that the cops moved them out. There's a lot of chaos in foreclosures all across the country because of the sheer number of them.

There were a million last year, and another million are expected this year. In Florida, the counties with the highest foreclosure rates see some of the increases in child poverty.

Rosa was suddenly on the street, and like the Corfees, she faced splitting up her family. "This is what is important is family is wherever you are...together. It doesn't matter if it is in your house, if it is in one room, or in your vehicle," she told Pelley.

"As long as you're with your family, you're going to make it through all of this that's been going on. All of it," Jacob added.

Rosa, Jacob, Joey and the dog are all in one room, right across the street from their old home. The neighbors took them in. We've seen a lot of that in our stories on the recession - neighbors, even strangers, opening homes to the homeless.

We talked to the Bravermans at the neighbor's house. They've been there three months and that is starting to worry them.

"I want to give the neighbors their own privacy you know? I don't want to be invasive," Jacob explained.

"So you miss your privacy from across the street. What else?" Pelley asked.

"Sometimes, you know, I have to go to the bathroom at night. And here I have to be really, really quiet, 'cause if I wake them up, I don't want to make them upset and get us kicked out," he replied.

Homeless kids tiptoe in a world of insecurity, hoping to be invisible.

"People said that I talk too much, and now they say I don't talk enough and that I'm really shy I guess," Jacob said.

Asked if he thinks the situation has changed him, he told Pelley, "Yeah, and I haven't realized it but I think I've gotten very mature in a very short amount of time."

Look for the homeless in Seminole County, and you'll find Robert Williams' family of five in one motel room. He and his wife lost their tourism jobs several months back.

When Angel Abreau lost his construction job, he and his wife had to split their family among relatives. They see their three young children on weekends. And on Sunday evenings, when we saw them, the goodbyes are always painful.

Destiny Corfee's family got out of the van and into a motel when her dad found a little day labor to scrape together a deposit for the room. He applied at car washes and Disney World; worked as a bricklayer's assistant, but nothing steady.

As the hotel bill came due, David was short. He found himself prepared to do nearly anything to keep his family from being split apart by the homeless shelters.

"So as embarrassing as it was, I sat down with a magic marker, and I've seen these people on the road with these signs before, and I wrote a sign out," he told Pelley. "It said, 'Please help, family of five.' Every truck that went by I would holler out to them, and let them see my sign. 'Hey, do you need any help? Can I get a job? Do you need any help?'"

"I didn't think that it was gonna have to come down to that. Like, he was actually gonna go and take the sign and show it to people. And I don't want people to know that I, he's my dad. I don't want to be embarrassed by people," Destiny said.

"You must have thought that you would never be that guy? The guy with the sign?" Pelley asked David.

"Never and in a million years did I think that that would be me. And I told my wife, 'This is America. And America is full of wonderful people. And I'm gonna go out and see what I can do and see if there's someone out there that can help us,'" he remembered.

He showed us the sign that eventually caught the eye of a woman who stopped to say she might have a job for him. "And sure enough that phone rang about a week later. She said, 'David, I'd like to tell you you're golden. That we have a job for you, and you can start Friday,'" he remembered.

"And that's where you got the hat?" Pelley asked, referring to a University of Central Florida cap David was wearing.

"That's where I got the hat," David replied. "And I've been wearing this hat ever since."

He's a parking attendant, making $10 an hour - enough to keep the motel room, but not enough to get out. Jorge dropped out, in his senior year, to look for work, but Destiny is still picked up on the school bus route for homeless kids.

"And when things get better again we know that there are still people struggling. So we'll be able to help out a lot more and we'll understand what they're going through," she said.

"This opened your eyes to an America that you didn't know existed?" Pelley asked.

"Mmm hmm," she said. "I can't believe it."

We all hear about the recovery - that the recession ended in 2009 - but some things are getting worse before they get better. And child poverty is one of them.

America's motel generation is growing fast.

Like the kids who came out of the Great Depression, this generation is being shaped by homelessness and hunger but also by memories of neighbors who opened their homes, and of families that refused to be broken.

Destiny and her family have moved out of the motel and into a modest home. Her dad now works for a landscaping company and is looking for a second job.

Jacob and his family have moved - temporarily - into subsidized housing.

Generous "60 Minutes" viewers responded to our story by helping both families, and by donating to the Seminole County School System. That has enabled the schools to launch additional food programs in the hope that students will no longer go to bed hungry.

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