02/02/2011 12:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

At-Risk U.S. Children Struggle To Just Be Kids

Cierra Jones does not invite her friends to sleep over. She would, if she had her own room, or her own backyard to play in. But the 9-year-old worries that her fellow third-graders would make fun of her, because her house is different. It's not really a house at all.

Jones lives in a set of rooms on the third floor of what was once the James Wilson Hotel -- named for one of the signers of the Constitution -- in Carlisle, Pa. Everything in those rooms, from the beds to the toaster, has been donated by people she doesn't know.

Nearly a month after the shooting in Tucson, Ariz., Americans are well acquainted with the life of the shooting's youngest victim, 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green. Yet as the shock of the shooting fades, Americans -- including thousands of children Christina's age -- continue to struggle with the familiar woes of the Great Recession. The country's crises of joblessness and foreclosure have left many adults powerless, but it is children who are increasingly the most vulnerable citizens.

Cierra Jones lives with her mother Sally Jo, a cashier at Wendy's, and her 6-year-old brother Isaiah. Safe Harbour, a nonprofit group that houses the homeless, provides their rooms.

The factors that contributed to the Jones family's homelessness began before Cierra was born. Ten years ago, Sally Jo Jones was working as a cashier at Burger King in Carlisle, making just a little more than the minimum wage. One night after closing the restaurant, she was mugged in the parking lot, an experience that left her so shaken that she quit her job.

Her bounced rent checks and unpaid bills piled up. She gave birth to Cierra, and by the time the child was two, Sally Jo was out of money and out of options. "Every month I would decide what bills to pay and what bills to get behind on," she said. Unable to make rent, she and Cierra found shelter at Safe Harbour.

After a time, Sally Jo got the money together for a nearby apartment. But last year, in spite of working full-time at Wendy's, she became overwhelmed by the strains of working single-motherhood, and in October, the family moved back into the old hotel.

The story of Cierra Jones and her family is consistent with what experts say is a growing trend.

"We've just had this historically large jump in the poverty rate for children," said Curtis Skinner, director of family economic security at the National Center for Children in Poverty. Indeed, census data shows that the number of children living in poverty rose to 20.7 percent in 2009 from 19 percent in 2008. One in five 9-year-olds lives in a household that receives food stamps, and 15.3 percent are not covered by private or public health insurance, Skinner said, citing 2009 census figures.

More than 78,750 third-graders were homeless at some point during the 2008-2009 school year, according to the latest data from the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, a nonprofit research organization in New York City.

Numbers only begin to tell the tale. And while the forces that lead to poverty, homelessness and other troubles can be complex, the social implications and attached stigma are not lost on children.

"I think kids that age have more understanding than people realize about their families' economic situations," said Jan Wallace, the director of behavior health services at Casa de los Niños, a Tucson children's shelter.

In the depressing landscape of childhood hardship, there are success stories, though even these can be reminders of the challenges facing those who have escaped a past of joblessness and unemployment.

Corteja Brown is 9 years old and in fourth grade. Her favorite book is "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," and she likes playing Monopoly -- her favorite game piece is the car. Today she lives with her three sisters -- ages 8, 10 and 16 -- in a three-bedroom apartment in downtown Atlanta, along with their mother, Yasmier Neal, who has a steady job four years running as a shift manager at the fast-food chain Checkers. But things weren't always this good.

Five years ago, Neal lost her job, leaving the family homeless. The effects on young Corteja were noticeable: once a well-behaved student, she became angry, acted out in school and was disciplined by teachers. She frequently fell asleep during class.

The years that followed were characterized by uncertainty and several moves: first, to transitional housing provided by an Atlanta shelter, and then, in 2008, to an apartment. But Neal, who was earning about $7 per hour, was unable to keep up with the $700 monthly rent, and the Atlanta Children's Shelter, which provides child care and job-searching assistance to homeless families, encouraged her to seek subsidized properties. And while such a trajectory might seem likely to diminish or even destroy a child's innocence, Neal, who is now 32, said that with Corteja this is not the case. "She still plays with dolls," Neal said.

Child advocates say shame is among the lingering effects of homelessness and poverty. It is common for better-off children to ridicule their homeless peers, said Pat LaMarche, who works as the communications director at Safe Harbour, in Pennsylvania. Kids like Cierra Jones, LaMarche said, tend to carry their homelessness, poverty or troubled home lives by themselves, denied backyard playdates and sleepovers.

"The hardest thing about being a homeless kid," LaMarche said, "is that you just want to be a kid."