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Grasping for a shred of hope as the reality of poverty sets in

Todd Little, a 45-year-old West Hollywood resident with a college degree, has been studying survival lately.

He knows not to park his vehicle where it will be easy for the repo man to find.

He knows how to make a few days of food pantry handouts last for a week.

He knows a few tricks for enduring the hell of long waits at the welfare office.

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“You have to laugh about it,” says Little, who always had steady work as a set decorator and residential and retail design consultant until two years ago, when it all went bust. A former employer at a coffee company told me Little was a talented designer and operations manager, but the recession forced cutbacks.

Little is no economist. But he says it feels to him as if the baby boomers “reaped all that they could get,” and when he got to the party, “there was nothing left.”

He’s trying to look at his new poverty, he said, “as a learning experience, but it’s beginning to feel like a long death spiral. The last challenge I had this big was Latin class.”

The day we met, at Dukes coffee shop in Little’s neighborhood, he was grateful that I picked up the tab for his bacon and eggs. He seemed a little surprised I’d decided to write about him after he e-mailed me the details of his predicament. But as I explained, with double-digit employment and no upturn in sight, I’ve never known a time in my adult life quite like this, when it felt like any one of us could quickly become Todd Little.

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He said he’s three months behind in the rent on a little bungalow he’s called home since 1987.

He’s two months behind on the Ford Explorer that once ferried his tools and materials to job sites.

He has no medical insurance.

He has no cellphone and fears that service on his home phone may be the next to go.

When you’re first out of work, he said, you figure it won’t last long. But the longer you’re out, the more you lose the very things you need in order to find work.

Little, who is single, told me he just needs a job — any job. In eight weeks, Little said he had filled out 56 job applications and heard back from only four employers. All rejections.

“I’ve tried Sears, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, Peet’s, Vons, Pavilions, Bristol Farms.”

Earlier, he landed an interview at Trader Joe’s, where he’d love to work. But he figures he probably gave the wrong answer when asked what his friends most dislike about him.

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“I think I said there’s nothing anybody doesn’t like about me,” he said.

As we talked, Little was composed for the most part, but at one point his eyes filled. He said that before his parents were cremated, they asked to have their remains kept on his mantle. Not only will he probably never have a mantle, Little said, but he wouldn’t want them watching over him as he’s forced to accept handouts.

“This is where I’m going to get emotional,” he said. “I still feel like I’m taking from someone who needs it. But the truth is, I need it too.”

Little said he always made around $50,000 a year and lived comfortably, but then his father died and asked him to look after his ailing mother in Northern California. Little began making regular trips north in 1998. He kept that up until his mother’s death in 2008. His sister told me Little was a dutiful son who did right by his mother, but it was an expensive decade of exhausting commutes.

After breakfast I drove Little down to the food pantry that’s been keeping him from going hungry, along with $280 a month in welfare and $140 a month in food stamps (his rent alone, $925 a month, is twice that total).

Twice a month, Little visits the SOVA pantry on Pico, run by Jewish Family Services of Los Angeles. The office was crowded when we arrived, and a volunteer told me things have changed at the pantry in recent years.

“You’re looking at the safety net for the middle class disappearing,” she said, and that has meant more people like Little relying on the pantry.

Little took a number and waited to be called along with about 20 other people. The mood was not particularly bright, and time dragged. But Little kept things in perspective.

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“There’s civic and social pride here,” he said. “It doesn’t degenerate, like it does at the welfare office. It’s post-apocalyptic there. After an hour, everyone’s in survival mode. It’s better if you bring a snack and water, so you don’t go out to get something and miss your name being called. You don’t make eye contact with anyone. You avoid engagement.”

As we waited, Little had his eye on the bread rack.

“Please, don’t take the last French bread,” he said as someone pawed the offerings.

It took about an hour for Little to register, get screened, and pick up his care package at the pantry window. He got rice, macaroni, soup, tuna, carrots, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, peanut butter and other items. And yes, a loaf of French bread.

I drove him home to the house he might lose, and he went back to the steady job of looking for work.

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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