Joanne Gilbert has seen the effects of our tanking economy close up. Her son with the physics degree couldn't find a job. Her friend's painting firm went belly up. Her husband, a Cal State Long Beach professor, has suffered through furloughs and salary cuts.
But none of that prepared the Northridge nurse for what she encountered last weekend, when she went door-to-door in Pacoima, interviewing families who had applied for Christmas baskets from the charity MEND.
They were living in garages, trailers, rented rooms; cooking on hot plates; sleeping on floors. Gilbert's job was to gauge their "level of need."
"You think you've seen the downside of the economy," she said. "But here you see the trickle down."
Here were people who used to be on the edge and had tumbled into the abyss.
Gilbert and her husband visited 11 families last Saturday. Like them, I was among dozens of volunteers who fanned out across the northeast San Fernando Valley, armed with clipboards and intake sheets, to survey hundreds of other applicants.
MEND volunteer Wilson Herrera prepped us at a morning training session. We were to ask about their income and expenses, survey their furniture and living conditions, and categorize them — needy, extra needy or truly needy — to determine how much help they received.
A hand went up from a volunteer. "If we see a nice car in the driveway, [and] a plasma TV, but they say 'I just lost my job,' can we ask for proof or do we just believe them?"
"Use you judgment," Herrera told us. I looked around at the volunteers — church ladies, a construction worker, college kids — nodding and taking notes. The weight of that word judgment unsettled me.
I headed out with Herrera to a nearby street of tidy bungalows. I thought, This can't be too bad, as we made our way through a wrought-iron gate toward a man lounging on the porch. I could see a set of matching sofas and big-screen TV through his front door.
Herrera greeted him and asked after the woman named on our list. The man waved us off. "She lives in the back," he said. In the back was a garage, converted to a two-bedroom apartment.
Inside was a sliver of a kitchen, with bedrooms walled off by a flowered curtain. Living there were a 32-year-old woman with breast cancer, her ailing mother, out-of-work husband, and their two children.
There was no plasma TV — just a plaque of Jesus on the cross and a paper plate fastened with Halloween streamers dangling from the ceiling. The young mother sat on a child-sized chair, a white scarf wrapped around her bald head, as Herrera gently questioned her.
Her mother is recovering too, from a double mastectomy. Her husband sleeps on the floor at night. Their requests: A pot for soup, a blanket, a blender to make fresh juices. Herrera promised them more and put them down as "truly needy."
The next family was even harder to find. Their address was a converted motel; a warren of crowded rooms on a busy street, behind a row of car-repair shops. The two rooms were dreary but spotless. Every piece of furniture, the mother told us proudly, had been donated or salvaged.
She had worked at a toy factory, "until I lost my permit" in 2008, she said. Her children's father had been deported. They were getting by on food stamps, the $60 a week she earns babysitting and regular visits to food banks and thrift shops. She seemed unembarrassed, almost cheerful, until we asked what she wanted for Christmas.
A jacket for her 16-year-old son, she said. Her voice softened and eyes spilled over. "And school uniforms for my daughters." She looked away from the girls, bouncing next to her on their twin bed.
I flashed back to my own lean years, and the power of such naked need to make you feel you're failing as a mother.
"It's hard to be the one who says what they get. But I'm glad we did it," Joanne Gilbert told me this week. The needs were so large, the requests so small: Sheets for the bed, a pair of shoes, a blanket for a teenager who sleeps on the floor.
"Most of us could come up with a list a mile long," Gilbert said. "Here, somebody needs pair of shoes. That's one pedicure."
Some of the clients she visited were clearly new to charity.
Like the fellow who worked at an auto dealership until it shut down last year. His new job pays minimum wage — enough to cover the car payment and storage fees for the furniture his family shed when they moved into his mother's home.
"They had a car, a TV. How needy is that? I struggled over that a bit," Gilbert said. "But I could tell he was a proud man. He probably had to suck it up just to walk into MEND." He wanted gifts to surprise his kids. She marked him down as "needy": a box of food, blanket and children's toys.
And what about the family in the comfortable rental home, with a quinceañera photo on proud display? Dad is a painter but hasn't worked in months. His wife snags odd jobs cleaning houses. They asked for food and a gift for their 6-year-old, "so she can have a Christmas, like they gave her brothers and sisters," Gilbert said.
She registered them as "needy" too but predicted they would be "truly needy" when Christmas rolls around next year.
The day put a face on economic woes. It turned politics personal.
I can imagine the computers booting up, the comments headed for our message board. Because illegal immigration was the elephant in those tiny living rooms.
Many of the people we interviewed were men without papers who can't find jobs; women who've lived here for 10 years but still needed translators. Those are facts. But I saw faces. And I wasn't the only volunteer who came away chastened.
"It didn't feel right," said Matt Clark, a freshman at Cal State Northridge who volunteered with three friends pledging Pi Kappa Alpha. "To go through their houses and see what they don't have, that was a little awkward for us. It was pretty crazy — three families, 15 people, living in one house. I can't imagine their experiences."
Clark grew up in suburban Orange County, "conservative in my politics," he said. Now "I probably wouldn't be able to tell somebody that they had to leave the country, to their face."
He learned that it's easy to argue the abstract, but the heart can blur hard lines.
Behind the statistics and slogans and stereotypes, there's a woman living six miles from me, who sleeps on a hard floor in a converted garage, with her arms around a hungry child.