Charitable Services Strained : Jobless 'New Poor' Flock Into San Joaquin Valley

Times Staff Writer

Hungry and broke, a young woman from San Jose cradled her husband's head and shoulders in her lap and gently stroked his shoulder as they sat in a reception area of a charity food bank, waiting for a box of groceries.

Stranded in nearby Kingsburg recently when an axle broke on their van, Becky Nixon, 23, and her husband Johnny, 26, hitched a ride to a Catholic relief office here, seeking assistance.

A few blocks away at the Fresno County Welfare Department's emergency shelter, Elizabeth Rains, 36, sat in a sparsely furnished apartment, anxiously talking about her children--three of the five were sick--and her husband's inability to find steady employment since they left Louisiana to seek work in Seattle a year ago.

"We'd hoped he'd get on at Boeing, but all Richard could find was odd jobs, and it cost so much to live up there, we couldn't make ends meet. Then we heard there was more work down this way, but there isn't. He's gone out looking every day for eight weeks and can't find anything," she said.

The Nixon and Rains families represent a growing problem for welfare and social workers in the San Joaquin Valley--the influx of poor people from the coastal metropolitan areas.

From Bakersfield to Stockton, record numbers of poor people are seeking help, often for the first time. Many of them have moved out of Los Angeles, San Francisco and other urban areas, becoming economic refugees fleeing the high cost of big-city living, social workers say.

This exodus of the urban poor who are searching for less expensive places to live is a new phenomenon, according to charity workers. In the cities, they say, these families often must spend 60% to 70% of their meager income for rent, and the added costs of child care, transportation and utilities leave them little money for food.

Many of the needy are the working poor who had qualified for food stamps and the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program before Reagan Administration's budget cuts disqualified them, charity workers said.

"These are people in crisis . . . the new poor. They want to work, are motivated to make it, but they've lost a job, or a house, and they just don't have enough food," said Father David Cousineau, president of the California Conference of Catholic Charities.

Throughout the San Joaquin Valley--where the jobless rates are running as high as 15% in depressed farming areas--there has been as much as a fivefold increase in requests for food, clothing and shelter this winter.

No one knows for sure how much of this increase is caused by the influx from other areas, but officials like Kern County Welfare Director O. C. Sills believe that it is considerable.

"Poor people are on the move. They are coming from other states, and from Los Angeles and San Francisco, where rents are just too high for them," Sills said. Because many of the needy do not meet the government eligibility requirements, "we refer most of them to Catholic charities or the Salvation Army."

"We were feeding 700 to 800 a month in 1983, but in November (1984) we had 4,100 people come in for food, and the (cumulative) total went to 45,000 by year's end, compared to 32,000 last year," said Peter Hagel, director of Valley Social Services, a charitable operation of the Fresno Catholic diocese.

"Another 'Grapes of Wrath' may not be far off," said John Grakoski, director of Catholic Charities in San Joaquin County, commenting on the recent influx of needy in the Stockton area. "We fed 60,000 this past year. . . . That's double what we did in 1983."

The idea that the San Joaquin Valley offers the new poor employment and new hope appears to be widespread, if ill-founded.

"In the last three weeks we've seen five families move from (San Mateo) to Modesto, where the living is much cheaper and there's more work," said Ronald Exley, assistant director of Catholic Social Services in urban San Mateo County.

But once they move to the valley, most of the unemployed find it difficult even to get a toehold on the economic ladder.

"I'm no tramp, but I'm flat busted," said a 44-year-old unemployed truck driver from Florida who had spent the previous night in a Visalia mission and was seeking help from a nearby food bank run by Catholic Charities. Embarrassed by his plight, he asked that his name not be used.

"Two years ago I was earning $680 a week, but there's no work back home, and I thought it might be better around here, but I can't find nothing. And, mister, I've looked." So, he said, he was "hitch-hiking out." Destination: Indio. "I hear there's work down there in the crops."

Many of the destitute are Southeast Asian refugees who have gone into the valley after initially settling in places like Orange County, San Francisco or Minneapolis.

"Two years ago we had only a few hundred of these refugees in the county; now there are 16,000, mostly the Hmong people (from Laos), and 85% are on welfare," said Ernest Velasquez, Fresno County assistant welfare director.

The effect of these refugees, added to the large number of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America who arrive to work on valley farms in the summer and then try to "hang on" through the winter when there is no work, has compounded the problems for all charities, public and private.

Government workers have no idea how many thousands of these Spanish-speaking people are in the valley illegally, hungry and in need because they are ineligible for public assistance. For help they must turn to private charities.

"It's bad this year, really bad. Worse than I've ever seen it," said a Catholic nun who has worked in Tulare County for two decades.

"The people tell us, 'Sister, it's bad here, yes, but it is so much worse in Mexico.' They just can't go back," she said.

Most of the private assistance is limited to emergency help, a three-day supply of food, some used clothing and a voucher to pay for gasoline to get farther down the road, but sometimes a charitable organization manages to do more, as in the case of Kevin Doherty, 37, a recent immigrant from Northern Ireland.

Doherty, 37, his wife and four children tried to make a go of it in San Diego for several months last fall, but they couldn't survive economically. An expert cable splicer from Belfast, he found a job in San Diego as a $4.50-an-hour security guard.

"But living down there was much too expensive. . . . A three-bedroom apartment there rents for $700 or $800 a month. We just couldn't make it," he said. So Doherty loaded his family in their small used car and, with $500 in his pocket, headed north, landing cold and hungry in Bakersfield.

Living in an unheated, bare room and sleeping on the floor, the family struggled for four weeks to survive. During that time Doherty worked only five days. Then word of their plight reached St. Vincent de Paul Conference President Pat Haenelt, and the Catholic volunteer group found Doherty a job as a $10-an-hour steel worker, found a house that rents for $400 a month and helped the family get settled.

But there are others like the Southern California mother of six whose story was related by relief worker Hagel. "She spent her last cent on seven bus tickets for Fresno," he said. "She came here hoping she could find a job. But she couldn't, and she had no money and no address, so welfare brought her to our center. We gave her a box of food."

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