A Lasting Toll
Can families recover from the Great Recession?
Behind the security gates of Coto de Caza, a once well-to-do real estate executive straps on a bulletproof vest and heads out to serve court papers on those who don't want to be found.
At transitional housing in North Hollywood, a homeless former music producer wrestles with humbling adjustments to his self-image as the family breadwinner.
In Pasadena, a longtime school employee juggles two jobs and sleeps just four hours a night, trying to recoup lost pay.
They are some of the faces behind California's grim statistics: unrelenting unemployment, sharp declines in household income and rising poverty.
As the economy falters, families that lost homes and livelihoods in the Great Recession are increasingly confronting the possibility that they may never fully recover. Previous recessions have taken a lasting toll, reducing family earnings and children's odds of academic success.
Three years after the economy imploded -- and two years after the recession officially ended -- The Times followed three families struggling to regain their footing. The Petersens, the Longs and the Tuckers come from different backgrounds; their future prospects vary.
But some of their experiences -- diminished expectations, strained family relationships, crises of self-confidence -- are becoming more recognizable amid growing fears that the country may be slipping toward another recession.
Click on the photos to read each family's story
From suburbia to skid row shelter
Jonathan and Veronica Long and their four children downsized to an apartment, then a friend's spare room. Then they were homeless. There are days she dares to believe they can recapture the life they had.
Staring resolutely ahead, a heavily pregnant Veronica Long pushed a stroller along 5th Street in downtown Los Angeles, past the junkies, the psych patients and those with no place to go. She ignored the whispers from crack dealers outside San Julian Park and strangers who hollered at her: “Go home!”
Before the recession, home was a two-bedroom house with a pool in Reseda. For most of this year, it was a shelter on skid row.
Veronica's husband, Jonathan, had a busy studio where he recorded and produced up-and-coming rap, hip-hop and R&B artists. But when the economy tanked, his clients ran out of money and he had to pawn his equipment to pay the bills.
The family downsized to an apartment in Long Beach, then a friend's spare room in Corona. When the friend was evicted last year, Jonathan, 35, Veronica, 34, and their four children ages 3 to 8 were homeless.
The Longs squeezed into a room at the Union Rescue Mission, which has turned over two floors of its main shelter to families washing up on skid row. Soon after, Veronica found out she was pregnant. (She thought she couldn't have more children because of a medical condition.)
“I was hoping that I would be out of this place before the baby was born,” she said, breathing heavily as she trudged 11 blocks to catch a train to a doctor's appointment.
Jonathan was thrilled when he found a job doing event security, but the work was sporadic. Other employers turned him down. He thought it might have to do with the tattoos covering his arms, a relic of his music industry days. When a young boy admired them in the hallway, he snapped: “I regret every single one.”
Jonathan started selling candy at Pershing Square Station to make extra cash. Their son Miles was born on Valentine's Day, their fifth wedding anniversary. On the morning Veronica was to be released from the hospital, Jonathan, who would sometimes take off for days, asked for a divorce.
“I felt like a failure,” he later explained. “I felt ashamed that I brought another life into the world and wasn't able to provide for the ones that I had.”
But when an anxiety attack sent Veronica back to the hospital, Jonathan rushed to be with his family. “What I realized is that me not being around hurts them more than me being here and not being able to provide what I used to,” he said. “I can't do that again.”
On a June morning, the family piled their belongings into two minivans and moved into transitional housing in Koreatown operated by Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. They pulled up in front of a building on a quiet, residential street. James, 4, raced for the door. Kayloni, 8, and Nathan, 7, stood on tiptoes to ring the buzzer.
Their ground-floor apartment had two roomy bedrooms with bunk beds. “I got this one! I got this one!” Nathan shouted. Veronica carried in 3-year-old Aidan and inspected the kitchen. Finally they could have a home-cooked meal, she said.
They didn't stay long. After a dispute with staff over house rules, the family moved to an L.A. Family Housing transitional facility in North Hollywood.
Veronica is weary of shelter living but relieved to be back in the relative safety of the San Fernando Valley. There are days she dares to believe they can recapture the life they had.
Jonathan recently spotted his old computer at the pawnshop and made a down payment. But he suspects a music career and that lifestyle may be out of reach. He is now applying for grocery store and telemarketing jobs. “This experience has humbled me,” he said.
All the moving is taking a toll on the kids. Their grades are suffering, and they're getting into fights.
Nathan is tired of the tension, tired of being told the family can't afford a new Transformer. “I want to be rich again,” he told his parents.
— Alexandra Zavis. Photograph by Katie Falkenberg.
Signs of trouble in a dream home
Three years after the collapse of his six-figure income, Eric Petersen's family has managed to hang on to their dream home. But they've had to refocus their priorities. ‘You can survive and be happy without stuff,’ Eric says.
Three years after the collapse of his six-figure income, Eric Petersen is excited about a new business venture: distributing medical supplies and equipment to surgeons like his brother. He spent months lining up manufacturers and getting credentialed with hospitals. A few weeks ago, he received an order for stem cells from his brother's office. His expected commission: $5,400.
“We'll be back on our feet. I'm sure of it,” Eric said over a kitchen dinner one night with his wife, Kim, and two sons, Ryan, 13, and Blake, 11.
Kim isn't so sure. “The potential is high,” she said cautiously. “But show me the money.”
The family has managed to hang on to its dream home in Coto de Caza, a gated community with golf courses and polo grounds that at one time was the primary setting for the reality TV series “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”
But inside their five-bedroom house, which they bought for $375,000 in 1997, there are signs of trouble. Laundry hangs in the garden because they can't afford to fix the dryer. The facing is coming off the kitchen cabinetry. The shelves are stocked with handouts from a food pantry.
When the housing market peaked, Eric, 46, made up to $360,000 a year brokering sales and loans and providing mobile notary services. But in the last three years, he has made just $70,000 on real estate transactions, most of it on a single deal. Many months he made nothing.
The Petersens burned through their savings, credit cards, home equity line and help from relatives. This year, they missed two mortgage payments.
Their attempts to get a loan modification were rejected. They weighed putting the house on the market. But even in Coto de Caza, for-sale signs stay up for months. Besides, said Eric, “Where would we go? Not many landlords will take credit cards.”
After years of being his own boss, Eric said he would like nothing more than a salary and benefits. He even applied at a local Del Taco restaurant. “They said I was too qualified,” he said.
So he stakes out defendants to serve them with court documents, provides expert testimony about shady real estate deals and spends hours in doctors' waiting rooms, hoping to pitch his products. Anything to help pay the bills, which come to about $7,000 a month, including some $4,000 in mortgage payments.
Kim, 45, who home-schools the boys, signed up to receive food boxes from the church where the three volunteer each week.
“It helps to serve here because you feel like you're the only person in the world going through this,” Kim said as they sorted donations one afternoon at the Saddleback Church food pantry in Lake Forest. “No one in my cul-de-sac has been affected. They're still buying their brand-new cars and coming home with their bags and bags of purchases.”
The experience has helped the family refocus its priorities. “You can survive and be happy without stuff,” Eric said. “ What is really important for us as a family is the love we have for each other and for our God.”
On a late summer evening, the Petersens gathered around the kitchen table for a lasagna dinner -- courtesy of the food pantry. Eric took his wife's hand and turned to the boys. “Who is going to bless this meal?” he asked.
Ryan bowed his head and began: “Thank you, God, for this meal.”
— Alexandra Zavis. Photograph by Katie Falkenberg.
Owning a home is now a mirage
The prospect of homeownership is evaporating for Andre Tucker Sr. and his wife, Equllia. Even with three incomes, they're behind on the rent. She also worries they won't be able to provide the specialized services their two children need.
Andre Tucker Sr. hoped to have his own home by the time he turned 50. “It's the American dream,” he said. But at 49, he's had to shelve that hope.
He and his wife, Equllia, used to make about $4,500 a month as classroom aides for children with disabilities. But in the last three years, the Pasadena Unified School District has cut Andre's hours, imposed furlough days and shortened summer school to help close budget shortfalls, reducing their income by about 20%.
To make ends meet, Andre took a night job at a board-and-care facility in Glendora. He gets home from school at about 5.30 p.m. and heads upstairs for a nap while Equllia makes dinner for the children, Alexandrea, 9, and Joshua, 7.
Four hours later, Andre is off again. When he gets home in the morning, he has time for a quick shower before heading back to school. “When you've been working 30 years, you're supposed to be going up the ladder,” Andre said. “But it seems that we're going down.”
Even with three incomes, the Tuckers are a month behind on the rent for their run-down bungalow. They had to give up their second car because they couldn't make the $434 monthly payments. A recent parking ticket nearly reduced Equllia to tears.
Andre worries that the family's financial difficulties are taking a toll on his wife's health. Last year, Equllia, 45, suffered a mild stroke. She worries they won't be able to provide -- and public agencies will further cut -- the specialized services their children need to succeed in school. Alexandrea has autism and Joshua has a hyperactivity disorder.
To make matters worse, Andre injured his hip in a fall shortly before the start of summer school. It took two months to get workers' compensation for the time he couldn't work. After summer school ended in July, Equllia did not work again until the start of the school year. Their combined earnings in August came to less than $1,000.
Equllia took money out of her retirement savings to pay bills and put food on the table. Given the likelihood of more school budget cuts, Andre does not expect their circumstances to improve.
“If anything, it's going to get worse,” he said grimly as he hustled the kids upstairs to bed before heading to work.
Equllia walked her husband to the kitchen door and whispered a prayer for his safe return.
“All we have now is hope and faith,” she said. “That's all we're living on now.”
— Alexandra Zavis. Photograph by Katie Falkenberg.
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