Two weeks ago, Nancy Brown poured her last $20 into her gas tank and began to sob.
The 35-year-old waitress was middle class, healthy, sane, newly employed--and homeless.
Brown and her husband, a refrigeration technician, were laid off from their jobs in Riverside within a week of each other. That was 18 months ago. They have since dived straight down through what used to be called “the safety net.”
Their unemployment benefits and savings evaporated while they looked for new jobs. Next they took odd jobs and cashed in their IRAs. Then they could no longer pay their $600-a-month rent. And finally, they outstayed their welcome with family and friends and wound up sleeping with their 18-year-old son in their pickup truck.
“We’re not bums, we’re not bag ladies, we don’t have an alcohol or drug problem,” Brown said. “There’s no reason we should be in this situation.”
Nevertheless, homeless advocates say there are a growing number of people like the Browns: the working, recently middle-class homeless. They also report more and more frightened phone calls from people who are just one or two paychecks away from the street.
“Not every family had one bad incident and that’s why they’re homeless, but there are enough families where this is not that unusual a story,” said Susan Oakson, coordinator of the Orange County Homeless Issues Task Force.
“We’re seeing a 10% increase (over 1989) in the homeless people,” said Dennis White, executive director of the Episcopal Service Alliance, which runs shelters, thrift stores and a variety of homeless programs in Orange County. In 1989, White said, 40% of the 7,900 homeless who approached the agency said they had jobs, as did nearly all of the 2,000 families living in motels.
Many of these families earn just enough to make them ineligible for public assistance. Yet the Christmas season donations on which private charities depend have not kept pace with the demand for help, White and Oakson said. Federal funds that help pay for emergency motel rooms are distributed in February and are usually spent by April, they said, though a new infusion of $856,000 in federal funds is expected to be distributed in late December or early January. In the meantime, however, recession, cold weather and budget cuts have left the cupboard nearly bare.
The Browns said they contacted almost a dozen social service agencies, to no avail.
“We used the last of our money. . . . We didn’t know what to do,” Nancy Brown said. “I called the welfare department. They referred me to the Salvation Army, and they referred me to various church organizations, and on down the line.”
“All the churches I called, all the shelters, are all full.”
According to Oakson, Orange County has 600 shelter beds and an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 homeless people.
Unaccustomed to working “the system,” the Browns did not ask for help until they were down to their last dime.
“It was hard for me to make that first phone call,” Nancy Brown said. “I was embarrassed even to call the operator.”
By then, they had landed jobs in Irvine, she as a waitress, he as a technician. But their jobs made them ineligible for public relief from the county, and because their son was 18, they could not receive Aid to Families With Dependent Children. That left them with no money for food or gas except what Nancy earned each day in tips, no place to sleep, and two weeks until payday.
“It’s pretty bad when you sleep in your car and you have to go wash up at a Carl’s Jr.,” she said. “You feel like a bag lady. . . . We try to keep up our appearance. You want to be presentable because you don’t want to lose the best job you ever had.”
They stayed in a campground in Riverside for a while. On Thanksgiving, Nancy Brown cooked a tuna noodle casserole on their Coleman stove. They left when they could no longer afford the $10 fee.
“We’ve been trying to find places to park our truck,” Nancy Brown said. “The police in Riverside have hassled us. They ran a complete check on us and told us if we didn’t leave right then, they would send us to jail for vagrancy.
“My husband, he’s getting pretty desperate.”
Rick Brown, 37, remembers the good days when he had a steady job and had $5 deducted from his paycheck every week for the United Way. They had a three-bedroom house, took skiing vacations and camping trips, and paid their bills “just like normal people.”
“We never seemed to be able to get ahead,” she said. “We never made it from the Blazer to the BMW. But we were doing OK. . . . I see all these people with new cars now, and I wonder what I’m doing wrong.”
“It’s just unbelievable how fast things can fall apart,” he said.
The Browns were given a voucher for one night in a motel room by the county welfare department, but were told they were ineligible for other help. Angelo Doti, director of financial assistance for the Orange County Social Services Agency, said Wednesday that the Browns’ story “sounds plausible,” but he could not explain why the Browns were not offered other help, such as food stamps or cash assistance, until their first payday. Perhaps, he said, it was because the Browns owned their car or had other assets that made them ineligible.
“So many people apply for public assistance and don’t realize how destitute you really have to be before you are eligible,” he said. “These are subsistence programs.”
Said Nancy Brown: “You have to get all the way down to the rock bottom of your luck before someone will try to help you.”
Because the Browns were working in Irvine, they were referred to Irvine Temporary Housing. That agency, too, had run out of emergency motel vouchers, said administrator Louise Watson. But Watson managed to cobble together a voucher for gas, some food, and a certificate for a free pizza, and enough money for several nights in a motel.
Last week, with only a few days to go until payday, the Browns’ luck appeared to finally be turning. He loves his new job, and feels a new sense of self-worth. A co-worker has promised to let them move into a mobile home in San Bernardino and pay the rent week by week until they get back on their feet. Their son is on a waiting list for a job at a supermarket and hopes to attend junior college.
Yet the psychological scars lingered as they spoke of how difficult it was to look for a job without an address or phone number; of how they feared potential employers would consider them “flaky” and unreliable if they learned the couple was homeless; of the friends who were too uncomfortable and turned their backs, and of their self-doubt and sense of isolation.
“It would be easier if you were never anything,” Rick Brown said. “But if you were something, it’s hard to compromise. You feel like there must be something that you have to offer somebody. I want to tell other people in the same position to believe in themselves, to take care of themselves.”
FACTS ABOUT ORANGE COUNTY’S HOMELESS
Between 10,000 to 12,000 people in the county are homeless.
The reasons for homelessness vary: 50% cite the loss of employment, 52% cite the inability to afford housing, 29% cite eviction from their residence, 11% cite drug or alcohol abuse, and 8% cite mental illness.
Sixty-six percent are men, and 34% are women. Among both sexes, 48% are single, 17% married, 13% separated, 20% divorced, 2% widowed.
Whites make up 61% of the homeless population in Orange county, blacks 17%, Latinos 16%, American Indians 3%, Asians 1%, and “other” 2%.
Twenty-seven percent have one or more children with them, and 71% of the children are age 5 or younger.
A little less than half say they have been homeless for at least one month but less than one year.
Orange County has about 14 shelters. Of these, 10 can handle families and one can handle couples, as well as singles. The rest are geared mostly for singles, with separate facilities for men and women.
Source: Orange County Homeless Issues Task Force