Walking through a hallway at the Orange County Rescue Mission, 11-year-old Connie Chilton contrasted this world with the affluent neighborhoods where she and her classmates live.
"It's very real," she said solemnly. "Where we live doesn't seem real compared to this. We don't have the problems they have here."
Connie was among four classrooms of fifth- and sixth-grade students from Santiago Hills Elementary School in Irvine who toured the rescue mission Friday morning.
As they filed into the building's atrium lobby, homeless men lounged on benches and on the floor against the wall reading newspapers, talking among themselves or dozing.
The mission, in a Santa Ana neighborhood where people pack grocery carts with their belongings and lay out their sleeping bags in parking lots, serves 300 free meals a day, offers bunk beds to 40 men a night and provides them hot showers every morning.
Teachers, parents and some of the homeless who have received help there said they hoped the field trip would put the children more in touch with social problems they've only read about in class and seen on television.
"We wanted to teach our children who are from very blessed backgrounds that there are people who do not have the abundance that they do," said parent Shannon Zech.
Some of the men in the mission's New Life program, which educates and counsels them for a year before releasing them onto the streets, talked to the children about their own lives: how they grew up, how they became homeless and how they found the Christian-centered mission.
James Taylor, who goes by his initials J. T., told them that crack cocaine ruined his life and sent him to the streets.
"I was on the streets for two years at the Civic Center," he said. "I lost my life, my car, my home and my job.
"Being out on the streets is no fun. You gotta figure out how you're going to get your next meal and people are looking at you all the time because you're dirty. I couldn't even afford to go buy a $2 breakfast. Even if I had $400 the night before, I smoked it all and in the morning, I don't have nothing."
Most of the children had never seen this side of Orange County. A handful said they have volunteered with their churches and families to deliver food and clothing to the homeless.
When students visit the mission, rescue workers like to involve them in some of the work there, such as filling emergency food boxes or handing out clothing to the poor, said community relations manager Joseph Furey.
"The real value lies in the kids at a young age becoming aware of social problems," he said.