LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - On her second day of camping near the coast northwest of Los Angeles, Benita Guzman lit a match, threw it on a pile of logs, and poured gasoline on top.
As flames engulfed her hand and foot, her niece, Angelica Cervantes, rushed to throw sand over her. Benita thrust her burning hand into a pile of mud, and took a deep breath.
Camping’s not easy. It’s a whole lot rougher when you’re a pair of homeless single mothers trying to keep seven children fed, clothed, washed and in school while living in a tent. A typical day is filled with ups and downs and learning to relish simple things like a hot cup of coffee or a snack for your kids.
“It’s scary, especially at night,” Guzman told Reuters about her new life. “I’ve always been spoiled. I have a large family and when we went on camping trips, I was the princess.”
Guzman said she now lives “moment by moment, day by day.” If she does break down, she tries to hide it from her kids.
“They tell me, ‘If you crack, we all crack. If you break Mom, we all break, because you’re the one who holds us together.’ So that’s what keeps me going.”
A tear rolled slowly down her cheek.
Guzman, 40, and two of her children are living with Cervantes, 36, and five of her kids. The two banded together in an effort to keep their families together.
Three of Guzman’s children and one of Cervantes’ are already staying with relatives, and neither wants their other kids taken away and placed in foster homes.
They all are part of a disturbing trend in the United States. One in 45 children, totaling 1.6 million, is homeless, the highest number in U.S. history, according to a 2011 report from the National Center on Family Homelessness.
“Homeless children have far more chronic and acute medical issues,” said the organization’s president Dr. Ellen Bassuk. “While in school it’s hard for homeless kids to pay attention. Many of them come in tired and hungry.
“Psychologically, homeless kids tend to be much more stressed,” she said. “Many have been exposed to a high level of violence, so many have a lot of anxiety and depression.”
After three weeks of sleeping at a campsite, Guzman and Cervantes decide they will no longer be able to afford the rental van to ferry the kids to school. They will need a new place to stay. So at dawn the two women load the children into the minivan and leave the tents at the campground.
They shuttle between schools, drop off the kids, then find a public restroom to clean up. Guzman struggles to douse her thick curly hair with drops of cold water from the tiny sink. Both women slip into stalls to change clothes.
They stop at a café for coffee. Guzman’s hair is wet and she shivers as she cradles her hot cup. They had tried to cook meals on the campfire, but it was difficult keeping their bellies full. At one point recently, Cervantes said, her weight had dropped from 180 to 152 lbs.
After coffee, they drive to a shelter that they hope will take Cervantes with all her children and not reject the teenage boy. But they are told to return the next morning.
Cervantes became homeless after a series of problems that included her husband going to jail and her kids being put in foster homes. She struggled to hold down low-paying jobs, but owed more money to the foster care system than she was making.
“I barely had any income,” she said. “I didn’t have food stamps, so I was taking money I saved for rent to feed my kids.”
After being evicted, she and her children moved in with Guzman, who had been living alone with her kids since her husband moved out five years ago.
But Guzman’s son Richard fought at school, and she missed her annual appointment for housing benefits to attend his probation hearing. She called to reschedule, but twice was sent letters with an appointment only to find the dates had already passed because she had received the letters too late.
She was evicted this past Christmas.
“In some states there are prevention services so that low income families who are on the edge don’t end up being evicted,” said Bassuk. “Because once homeless, it’s very hard to get back into the community and find permanent housing.”
Affordable, long-term housing isn’t all that’s needed. Bassuk said transportation and child services are also necessary so single moms can go to work and feel comfortable in knowing their kids are being looked after.
The women, who get by on government subsidies and welfare programs, decide to find a cheap motel room for the night so the children can walk to school in the morning.
By the time they check in that evening, Cervantes can’t stop clutching her aching head. Guzman carries a box of snacks - carrots, oranges, chips - and a cooler of sodas.
The children rush excitedly toward the first bed they’ve seen in weeks and begin bouncing on it while trying to work the television remote control.
“Let’s see in the drawers, if they have clothes for us,” says 6-year-old Tomas Cervantes.
His 9-year-old sister, Veronica, lies down on the bed and pulled out a wobbly tooth.
“The tooth fairy’s not going to come,” taunts Tomas.
The children become hungrier as the night wears on while they wait for Guzman to return with dinner.
Preciosa Cervantes, 8, climbs from the refrigerator onto a high shelf where the snacks are stored. Her mother tells her to get down. By the time Guzman returns with a bucket of fried chicken, a couple of the kids are already sleeping.
Tomas drowsily bites into piece after piece. He burrows under the covers in the only remaining space at the foot of the bed and falls asleep with a bag of chips in his hand.
His brother Francisco Gona, 15, tries to do his homework, but looks up occasionally at “The Dukes of Hazzard” on TV.
“I’ve taught them all - you finish school,” said Guzman. “I think it’s going to help them grow. When they get older and they end up in a situation, they will have skills that a lot of kids don’t have. They’re going to learn unity.”
Reporting By Lucy Nicholson; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte