JOSE RAZO, the principal of Telfair Elementary School in Los Angeles county, wants his students to spend their time worrying about homework, their grades or playdates.

But the harsh reality for more than quarter of the 720 children in the school is far different - they are classified as homeless.

''Food, somewhere to sleep, something to put on their back, those are the challenges our students are facing,'' says Razo. ''Someone seven or eight years old should not have to worry about that.''

According to the Los Angeles Unified School District, nearly 18,000 students in the district are classified as homeless and Telfair is the epicenter of the crisis.

Built in 1945, the school is located in Pacoima, about a 30 minute drive north of downtown LA, and nearly all of its pupils - 98 percent - are Latinos.

About half of the homeless students come from low-income families struggling to survive. They are forced to live with relatives, in shared homes, in garages, sometimes with no running water - or in mobile homes.

''Tired and anxious'' : Nearly every student is poor enough to qualify for free or reduced price-meals.

''When you have a single mom working to pay for two students and herself, and she's just making the minimum wage [$12 an hour in LA], that's barely enough for just the food,'' says Razo, who himself experienced homelessness growing up.

''So families will double up, triple up, quadruple up in a house, and each family might rent a room for for two or three children,'' he added.

Razo said ''home'' for some of the pupils at Telfair is a living room where they are unlikely to get a good night's sleep amid the comings and goings of the home's other occupants. ''So they come home the next morning tired and anxious,'' he said.

A small number of the students, Razo said, live in motels. The worst off live in RV, shelters or even a car. Teachers at the school said for some of these kids, a bathroom ends up being the only quiet place to do homework.

The numbers are sobering in a state that is home to world's fifth-largest economy - but has the nation's highest poverty rate when cost-of-living is factored in.

''We need to break the cycle of poverty,'' said Razo, a devout Catholic who served in the US Marine Corps and still sports a buzz cut.

''I tell the children my story.i tell them you maybe poor now but you're not going to be poor forever. Being poor is not right.'' [Agencies].


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