Just west of the 5 freeway in the center of Boyle Heights, across the street from Evergreen Playground park, sits Our Lady of Talpa School, a K-8 school run by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. We recently visited the campus and spoke with Principal John Rojas about some of the hardships faced by the families at his school, including the effect of the housing crisis in Los Angeles.
What are the biggest issues faced by the families at your school, and how does poverty affect your students’ school performance?
The biggest issue facing families at the moment is finding affordable housing. Boyle Heights is undergoing a period of gentrification. A significant number of new residents are moving into the community and are driving out the current residents—it is the simple law of supply and demand. A number of our families have had their rent increase significantly and have been forced to move in with other families in one apartment to divide the rent. When students and their families are worried if they are going to have a place to live, it is bound to affect their performance in school. If they are living in overcrowded apartments, they do not have a quiet place to study or do their homework.
Can you share some stories of things you’ve heard from families in regards to the struggle of living in poverty in LA?
Due to the housing crisis, we had a family that was essentially homeless. They were living in a dilapidated recreational vehicle which they were renting for $600 per month. The conditions were terrible—they had no access to electricity or running water. But in their minds it was better than living in a park or underneath a freeway. This is a new phenomenon that has arisen. Some people are renting awful RVs to families who simply cannot afford the astronomical rent prices. The owners take away the battery and keys from the renters, because they want to control its location. They typically are parked in unsafe, industrial areas where residents will not complain that they are permanently parked there.
If you could snap your fingers and change something for the children at your school and their families, what would it be?
If I could snap my fingers and change something for our families, it would be increasing access to safe and affordable housing. Having a roof over our heads is one of the most basic human needs. If students don’t have that sense of safety and security, it is very difficult to ask them to make gains in the classroom.