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Poverty & Recession in San Diego


Envision San Diego & KPBS Special Report

Web movie: Poverty & Recession in San Diego
The unemployment rate is nearly 9 percent in San Diego County. People are losing their jobs and their homes. It makes a toxic combination – one that is making more San Diegans homeless, hungry and desperate.

The unemployment rate is nearly nine per cent in this county. That’s almost double over last year. People are losing their jobs and their homes. Many can no longer afford rent – rent that is nearly triple the national average. It makes a toxic combination – one that is making more San Diegans homeless, hungry and desperate.

In this Envision San Diego and KPBS special, we’ll look at how the recession has taken its toll on the working poor in San Diego County, and those who never expected to be poor.

First, meet a man who never thought his life would turn out this way – living in a tattered RV on the streets of San Diego.

Joanne: Hey Thomas, so can we come in

Thomas: This is where I sleep and—Snappy, you gonna be cool?

Thomas: That’s the beer that we scavenged this morning. It was sitting in that cooler. We didn’t want to take it but it’s been sitting there. They just left it. They don’t care.

Thomas Smirnoff lives in this RV.

Thomas: And then this is where I sleep, that’s a comfortable mattress. There used to be another mattress over here but I threw it away. It was in bad condition. That’s all my music equipment.

He’s lived in it for the past three years. He has no electricity

No refrigeration, other than the bags of ice he is constantly buying.

Joanne: Do you have running water?

Thomas: No, you use the jugs. You might want to see that, the jug method.

He has his own bathroom, but uses the jug method to flush.

Thomas: See I don’t like going in the public bathrooms ‘cause they’re nasty. I want my own bathroom. I don’t want be like that.

Thomas’s twin brother Robert has been staying with him lately. He lost his apartment months ago.

Thomas: Seem he has to go to the Y to take a shower because of his long hair, to get the soap out of it. The jug method just takes up too much water. But I can use the jug method to take a bath.

The two of them survive on food stamps and what they collect from trash cans.

Thomas: We scavenged this organic full bottle of this amazing, sometimes, its close up in the hundreds of dollars they throw out.

Joanne: You scavenged that bottle of sauce from the garbage can?

Thomas: That’s the thing. We don’t dig down and get nasty where there’s bacteria or slime muck. Just right at the top nice and clean.

They move this RV every three days to comply with city bylaws.

They have no hookup, no trash disposal, no way to clean the inside of this RV. They quite simply, spend their days surviving.

They are two of San Diego County’s 8,400 homeless people – a number that has grown by nearly 10 per cent since last year.

Although, don’t focus too much on that number. We’ll get into that later.

You should know Thomas is considered among the chronically homeless. About 20 per cent of all homeless people in this county are in that category. He might be considered the so-called poster boy of homelessness. He fits the statistical description so well. He is a white male, in his forties, with a history of drug use and he drinks.

But here’s the thing…Lately, the face of homelessness has been changing.

Half of all homeless people in the United States are families. And the second most common face of homelessness – second to Thomas – children.

Thomas allowed our camera crew to follow him for a day – to see how he survives in San Diego without a place to live, a job, health care, or money to buy food.

Throughout our show tonight, we will check in with Thomas and his brother Robert and their dog Snappy.

But first, we want you to meet some other families. People who have lost their jobs, who don’t have enough food for their children, who are months away from being homeless or already homeless.

Thomas: People are really stunned. They never thought this would happen to them.

These people have crowded into this warehouse on a weekday morning because they’re unemployed, short on a food or need a place to live.

Thomas: We just need some food. I’m self employed, and business is not going very well in the architectural field.

In some San Diego neighborhoods like La Mesa, demand for food from the Food Bank has doubled in the past year.

In Carlsbad, it’s up 1,000 per cent.

Middle class families are now finding themselves in food lines.

If the American dream means working hard to make a better life for your kids then the one you had – Valenta Calva was living it.

Valenta: I don’t have car. I don’t have job. No money. Nothing, nothing, nothing…

The 29-year-old Mexican immigrant moved to San Diego County as a teenager, worked on a ranch with his young wife and eventually worked his way up as manager in a local vitamin factory and got his green card.

He felt like he had everything. And then he lost his job two months ago.

Valenta: And it’s really hard because I don’t have work. It’s really hard because money moves the world, you know? That’s what they say. If you don’t have money, you cannot go further.

This is a difficult conversation for Calva, hard-working and proud, to have with a reporter.

Joanne: Would you go to the Food Bank for food?

Valenta: No.

Joanne: You don’t seem like the kind of guy that asks for that kind of help.

Valenta: No. Always I try to do the best that I can.

He hasn’t applied for unemployment because he doesn’t want to ask the government for help. He thought he’d just get another job.

But he has just two thousand dollars left in savings, and bills to pay.

Valenta: I need to pay the rent. The car too. The bills. And it’s a lot of money that I have to spend. But let’s see, next month I try to figure out what’s going on.

Calva doesn’t have a back-up plan. If he can’t pay his rent, his family will have nowhere to live.

The Unemployment rate in California is 10.5 per cent, the highest its been in 26 years…

In San Diego County it’s 8.8 per cent. Nearly double in the past year.

Even low paying service jobs are getting harder to come by. This McDonald’s on El Cajon Boulevard reports getting 25 applications a week – twice the number they use to get a year ago.

And a Home Depot in Santee is getting at least 50 applications a week. More applicants than usual for fewer positions than usual.

The federal stimulus plan has thrown a lifeline to people collecting unemployment benefits – extending them from 59 weeks to 79 weeks.

There are nearly 2 million Californians without work.

Thomas Smirnoff and his brother Robert spend much of their day sitting in the RV, curtains drawn, hoping to go unnoticed by police and people walking by.

They roll cigarettes. Watch the dog. Listen to the radio when they can get reception. And figure out what supplies they need for the day.

They drive only when they have to – the RV is old and things are breaking down.

Thomas: Ok, well, something’s wrong with the generator. It’s even worse, the generator may have to be taken out and thrown away.

Sometimes they have jobs.

Thomas: When I try to get work, I try to make the application look like I’m not really homeless. I try to look nice and clean, like I have good.

Thomas sometimes works with research firms that are hired to sign people up for petitions. He can make between 50 cents and a dollar a signature.

But even that work is disappearing. Thomas knows his appearance is costing him jobs. His one good set of clothes rotted away. He made rags out of them. It’s hard to take a shower using jugs of cold water. He’s aware people think he’s dirty.

Like the time he had a job interview a few months back.

Thomas: They wouldn’t let me use the bathroom that day. “We don’t have a public bathroom, sir, and I know what she…” All the people downtown who are not homeless are aggravated with the homeless.

On the day I spent with the Smirnoff brothers, they had less than $150 between the two of them – money borrowed from another brother in Georgia.

Thomas receives food stamps. He could apply for welfare, known as General Relief. That’s a county program for indigent people. It would provide him with about $270 a month.

Welfare programs in San Diego County might be considered harder to come by than in other California counties.

KPBS examined social services statistics provided by the state government: Here’s some of what we found:

In San Diego County, with a population of three million, 760 people received General Relief benefits in January 2009 – a program paid for by the County. That’s compared to more than 75,000 in Los Angeles County or 8600 in Sacramento.

In fact, LA County spends 30 times more per capita on this social service program than San Diego County.

No one from the County’s Health and Human Services department would speak to us about these statistics, but did respond to our questions in writing. They told us the state mandates this program exist, but doesn’t fund it.

And because “each county determines how to operate their own General Relief program,” it’s not fair to compare case numbers.

CalWorks is the largest welfare program, funded by the federal, state and county governments. It’s available to families with children. Across the county, in nearly every zip code, demand for this program has increased since last year. The greatest need is in east county, in neighborhoods like Encanto.

A year ago 36-year-old Nicole Adzima had no place to live after leaving an abusive relationship.

After spending a few weeks in a shelter, Adzima was able to come here, to this apartment complex run by St. Vincent De Paul’s Villages.

Adzima’s only job experience had been as a sales clerk – she’s now training to be a substance abuse counselor.

Nicole: It seems that me with my qualifications I'm fighting with a lot of people who have a lot of qualifications. The guy next to me was trying to downsize their résumé. I'm trying to upsize mine. They’re just not out there right now.

Adzima has been living in this housing complex for one year. She’s allowed to spend two years max, and then she’s out on her own just her and her four year old son.

Joanne: What do you do if time runs out and you don’t have a job?

Nicole: I don't know... I don’t know…

Father Joe: Demand is up a year ago. 2,200 people a day come for help. 3,400 people a day may mean they are coming for a meal, coming for a day, see a doctor, living with us in some way they’re getting is some assistance from us.

Father Joe Carroll oversees a conglomerate of homeless services, from housing to food to job training.

Father Joe: Usually the first thing you hear from people is, “I never thought I’d be one of those people - people who become homeless are normal, go through traumatic experience, lose job, battered, something went wrong...” And they end up homeless. And usually they take almost too long to come into a shelter.

Mary Herron: Here at this particular meal we’re seeing more hungry people.

Mary: We’re also aware there are many people who never expected to be faced with homelessness and families are a great concern to us they tend to live in their cars and don’t know where to turn they’re really in a state of shock.

This is Field Elementary School, located in the working class neighborhood of Claremont.

These kids could go home – today school ended early. But all of these students stayed so they could eat lunch.

Robin Stern: They’re hungry. They’re hungry. This is a good meal. It’s good, it’s here and before they leave to go home, parents come a little bit later to allow the children time to eat.

Last year, 53 per cent of the students at this school were eligible for the free and reduced lunch program. Today it’s grown to nearly 79 per cent.

Gary Petill: Now we’re almost at 79 per cent its staggering that’s only the families that have come forward and the reason I think we’ve seen such an influx is families are coming forward they’re pushing aside the stigma. They’re pushing aside the fear because they’re put against the wall saying that if my children don’t eat breakfast and lunch five days a week, I might not be able to afford to send them to school with food. I might not be able to serve them dinner. We don’t know what they’re eating at night. We don’t know what they’re having on the weekends.

In the San Diego Unified School District – the second largest district in the state - nearly 60 per cent of all families are eligible for the free and reduced lunch program. That means they are hovering above the federal poverty level. For a free lunch, a family of four can’t earn more than $27, 560 a year.

And there’s another problem, some of these kids are becoming homeless.

Robin Stern: Just this week one of our fifth grade students is losing his home so he’s nervous. He’s really nervous and is apprehensive. His family is cleaning out because of an eviction.

Gary Petill: That’s a whole other thing - being homeless who would ever think. We’re in San Diego and we have so many homeless families, we have over 900 children in our district, that we know of, that we know of, that are homeless—900, that’s a pretty big number.

Joanne: How can you tell a homeless person on the street, Thomas, when you drive?

Thomas: Well, lets face it. It’s hard to take showers, warm showers anyway, and so their faces are dirty. You just develop an intuition where you can tell for years and years of being around them whether I was homeless or not. And they probably will have their suitcases or their backpacks and they will be dirty and tattered and their clothing tattered

a lot of times you can tell by the hair. It’s grease. It’s not just gel. It’s grease.

Joanne: Thomas, is this how you thought your life would turn out?

Thomas: No, I just thought I’d be a normal person.

At this school in Vista, kids are being given snacks for the weekend.

It’s part of a San Diego Food Bank program to help struggling families feed their kids over the weekend.

Susan Thayer: Every morning we have a few kids who are just really in a hurry to get to the breakfast line. Monday, especially, is the time kids get in trouble for racing to get ahead of others to have breakfast. So, yes, there are kids who don’t have enough to eat and go to bed hungry.

Susan: Guys, I’m gonna run out ahead of time today because I have more children then bags…So…

On this day, there weren’t enough bags of food for all the kids in need.

Thirty kids are enrolled in the program, the school nurse says she could easily enroll another 100 if they had the funding.

Joel Berg: There are more people, who were previously in the middle-lower class who need pantries and kitchens.

Joel Berg worked for the Clinton Administration back in the 90’s. His portfolio included helping non-profit groups fight hunger.

Joel Berg: If you were truly well-off before this downturn, by in large you have assets to fall back on. You had bank accounts, you had property to sell. Maybe a few years down the line, if we don’t get out of this, you may start to see a little more of those folks but the people we are really seeing at pantries and kitchens were the receptionists, were the night watchmen, where the drivers at places like Wall Street firms and other big firms that are having these problems.

Governor: No family in CA should go hungry.

But they are. 70 per cent of people eligible for food stamps in this county, don’t get them.

Governor: Now here, the sad story is this: Two million Californians are eligible for that program, but there’s $341, and they don’t know about it. And this is why we’re going from city to city to let people know. Here in San Diego County, only 29 percent of people are taking advantage of the food stamp program.

The County Board of Supervisors is trying to increase food stamp enrollment - they’ve been under pressure from advocacy groups for months.

President Obama, who’s family lived on food stamps when he was a child, has pledged more money for the program in the stimulus package – more than 800 million dollars to California.

Joel Berg: On everyday practical level, we need to send the message to individual families that if they need help, they should get help. Their tax dollars are paid for. Donald Trump isn’t shy about getting government help. A billionaire who owns a ball team isn’t shy about getting government help to build them a spanking new stadium, just so they can have more expensive, executive sky boxes and jack up prices on the working people. So if everyone else is getting help, if your tax dollars, paid for out of your long life from working, have already paid for food stamps benefits, now called Snaps benefits, you should go get them.

Thomas Smirnoff doesn’t usually busk. He’s performing this song, a song he wrote, for us.

It’s about being homeless

About bitterness, anger and shame

And a painful awareness of how the public views him – as dirty…

As someone who is pitied.

Spend a day, not in Thomas’s shoes, but with Thomas, and you see him for what he is…just a middle aged guy who never thought he’d end up homeless.

He started out a rebellious teenager who thought he’d find fame and fortune in music. He was kicked out of the house for smoking pot.

Fast forward 30 years. The longest stretch he’s lived in a house is seven years, but that came to an end when his landlord sold the property.

There is still a glimmer of hope when Thomas imagines he might have a shot at a music career.

Thomas: Darn it. I need to make a CD to have with me whereever I go to busk and that way they’ll have my contact information and somebody might get turned on by it and want to do the indie label thing whatever.

But then he thinks about what it would take to make a CD. How would he rehearse?

And soon he’s talked himself out of his plan.

Thomas: I don’t know. It’s almost starting to get hopeless.

Father Joe: Once you reach a certain point where things don’t turn around what happens? You reach a point in defense, accepting it as a way of life. You start making excuses. If I really feel stuck, I need the freedom. Everything is against me.

Experts say once someone is homeless for six months – they’re at risk of being chronically homeless. And once they feel hopeless, they’re almost certain to stay on the streets.

But hope again comes in the form of the stimulus package. 10 million dollars to the county to help people on the verge of losing their homes or being evicted from their apartments.

There remains a shortage of emergency and transitional housing. San Diego has enough transitional housing for 36 per cent of its homeless – the national average is 56 per cent. And the waiting list for affordable housing – five to seven years.

Remember that number? 8400 homeless. That’s the number of people counted in one night in San Diego county living on the street or in shelters. Experts say double it – you might get closer to the real number.

Homeless families hide – they sleep in their cars – afraid their kids will be taken away by social services.

They live in motels week to week…or they’re crowding in with friends and families.

The new face of homelessness, that’s the thing, we don’t have that stereotype yet because its changing so radically these days.

It all seemed to happen so fast.

Like a strong wind that blew through the country and changed how middle class looks – who poor looks like…who homeless looks like.

Thomas never imagined he’d be the face of homelessness.

Thomas Smirnoff’s story has a bittersweet ending. He is expecting to receive money from his late mother’s estate any day now. It won’t make him rich, but he says it should be enough to rent him space at a trailer hook up.