Hard Times

It's the Monday before Thanksgiving, and the Monterey Peninsula is unseasonably balmy and crystal-clear. Beaches in Carmel and Pacific Grove are littered with moms and tots, surfers braving giant waves and college students playing hooky.

Thirty miles away, on West Market Street in Salinas, tractor trailers loaded with end-of-the-season produce buzz by in a relentless procession. There aren't many trees here down by the freeway, just long rows of gray warehouses. The wind from the trucks kicks up dust in front of 815 West Market, where a small sign announces the home of the Monterey County Food Bank.

Inside, the 20,000-square-foot warehouse is very quiet. A small but constant line is forming for the 1-3pm emergency food distribution. Intake workers hand out simple application forms to clients and then give out what they can. Today there are the staples: bread, milk, canned goods and produce, plus some extras: donated pumpkin pies from local grocery stores.

An elderly man in a white cowboy hat is meticulously unpacking crates of bread that were just unloaded off a truck. Two twenty-something men repack the bread into plastic bags bundled with lettuce, oranges, jelly and spices.

Programs Manager Carmen Hernandez explains that the men are "community pantry volunteers" who work a minimum of three hours and get a box of food in return-a program she says is designed to "preserve their self-confidence and integrity."

Nearby, plastic crates of USDA products are waiting to be boxed by the 460 volunteers who serve the various Food Bank programs that feed up to 40,000 county residents each month.

Every day, local non-profit agencies park behind the warehouse to load bulk non-perishable items onto trucks to take to distribution sites. But today, the shelves that used to bulge with items like peanut butter and canned soups offer just a couple of lonely boxes of graham crackers and baby cereal. It's an unprecedented state of affairs that points to a looming crisis.

"For the first time in my five years here, our shelves are empty," says Leslie Sunny, the Food Bank's executive director.

The New Poor

The drained resources plaguing the Food Bank echo a phenomenon that's appearing in social service agencies and non-profits countywide and statewide. An unfortunate combination of increased need and diminished supplies in the community has local agencies struggling more than ever to help the needy-a group whose very definition is changing.

Single parents, seasonal workers, and those down on their luck are coming to the Food Bank, as they always have. But there is also an apparent recent shift that has brought in more workers who have been laid off from well-paying jobs, and more seniors on fixed-incomes who are having to choose between food and rent.

The same thing is happening at various agencies around the county.

"It's really how the face of hunger is changing," says Sunny. "The majority of people coming through our front door are telling us they got laid off, or their husband or wife got laid off. Easily 50 percent of our clients are from the recently unemployed."

Since the end of last year, Hernandez has noticed workers formerly making adequate pay asking for assistance from the Food Bank.

"Last week there was a nurse who was laid off who had been making $28 an hour," she says. "I can tell right away who the new arrivals are. They feel very awkward because they have been self-sufficient most of their lives."

Lynn Riddle, deputy director of Shelter Outreach Plus, confirms this trend. With a mobile outreach team, the organization's blue vans cruise the streets offering clothing, food and medical supplies, and picking up homeless people for a meal and a night in a clean bed.

"We are definitely seeing an increase in homelessness and the kinds of people who are facing it-it's been more substantial over the past year," Riddle says. "We have many, many blue-collar families who are coming in."

Economic indicators for California, in particular Monterey County-now the nation's least affordable place to live-are not looking good. While national figures suggest that in some areas of the country conditions are gradually improving, times are tough-and looking to get tougher-in many other regions, New York and California belong to the latter category. Local agencies and non-profits are seeing more and more indications that the number of working poor is growing rapidly.

According to the National Association of Homebuilders, just over 7 percent of people in Monterey County who earn the median income can afford to buy a home. And renting isn't much easier. The National Low Income Housing Coalition says that a family in Monterey County needs to earn $33,760 a year to afford a two-bedroom apartment-and that's assuming said apartment is priced at a "fair market rent" of only $844 a month.

The Shrinking Free Market

With housing costs wiping out many residents' monthly budgets, food budgets are getting the squeeze. A recent hunger study conducted by UCLA, the most comprehensive ever undertaken in California, shows that almost 30 percent of Monterey County's adult population say they have trouble putting food on the table. That problem is called "food insecurity."

Along with other programs designed to address that food insecurity, the Food Bank has had to step up its services dramatically. Demand has gone up 271 percent over the past four years at the Food Bank's 45 distribution sites, which disburse USDA commodity foods, provide non-perishable items for 130 non-profits, deliver brown bag lunches to 1,300 seniors, and offer food for children under five at 15 sites.

But even with the growth in its programs, bureaucratic limits prevent the Food Bank from fulfilling all the community's needs, according to Hernandez.

"The problem is the federal government dictates to us how often we can distribute food into the community," she says. "Our concern is that we can give out USDA products only once a month. We try to fill in the gap with our emergency pantries and by providing community referrals and applications for food stamps."

Filling the gap is becoming more and more difficult, due to major cuts in community donations and grants.

In an uncertain economy, grocers are no longer handing out mislabeled or dented cans to the Food Bank, but reselling them on the secondary market. And the few donations now given by grocers are often hardly useful to a starving person.

Hernandez points out piles of donated items that look like they'd hardly cut it for nourishing a family.

"What they are giving us is junk food," she says, than quickly corrects herself: "I should say 'snack food.'" She smiles. "Of course we appreciate it, but it's just not really..." She shakes her head as the thought drifts off.

Fritos, Pepsis, and cookies sit next to large bags of dog food and charcoal. A plethora of cleaning supplies, from mops to Downy Wrinkle Releaser, are boxed in a corner of the warehouse.

With funders like the David and Lucile Packard Foundation facing huge losses in their stock portfolios, Sunny says she is hearing a disheartening message: "We'll still help you, but we don't know how much.

"We are holding our breath in that arena particularly, to see how the foundations fare," she says.

The numbers, while frightening, do not tell the whole story. There is a consensus throughout agencies that the known level of need-while enormous-is still underreported.

Government dollars given to the Food Bank to purchase USDA foods are based on the unemployment rate per capita. The county unemployment rate as of August 2002 hovered at 6.2 percent, up from 5.4 percent the previous year.

Mark Weller, research analyst for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), says the numbers do not reflect the true extent of unemployment.

"One of the problems with using the word 'unemployment' is the way that it's defined," he says. "Even if you work an hour a week, you are counted as employed. The unemployment figure may not change much, but hidden in those numbers are the employees whose hours have been cut from 40 per week to 15 per week."

Weller points out that such a reduction in hours-or underemployment-is contributing greatly to the new poverty.

"Hospitality workers in the union are being offered 10 percent fewer working hours than last year," he says. "They make up a third of our workforce. When they lose hours it's a real hit to all of us."

Cold Christmas

Twice a month, Sandy [not her real name] picks up extra food for her family at St. Angela's Church in Pacific Grove-a distribution site for the Food Bank. It's a humbling experience for the college graduate and mother of three, who works two part-time jobs to try to support her family.

"It's kind of embarrassing," she says earnestly. "It's not like I'm a lazy person."

As we sip hot chocolate with her husband, John, Sandy flips through a thick file of papers documenting her employment history.

"Here," she says, handing me a stack of glowing letters of recommendation. "I don't want you to think I'm making this up."

Sandy's past employers praise her integrity, dedication and job skills. Over the past 10 years, she has co-owned and managed shops in Carmel and Pacific Grove with her first husband and worked for a now-defunct cable company.

After getting divorced and being laid off from several decent-paying jobs-one place went out of business and the other downsized-Sandy has been working two part-time jobs that don't provide enough hours or a living wage. She makes $9.50 an hour working at the Del Monte Shopping Center and $11 an hour doing cooking shows for grocery stores, but work fluctuates between 20 and 40 hours a week.

John has been out of work since June, a point of contention for Sandy and a major stressor on their marriage. Another issue is the fact that they are living with friends-albeit friends who are charging them $1,045-a-month rent.

"It's a real bad situation," Sandy says. "Two of the places we've rented over the years were sold. Then John had surgery and stopped working. That's where it all went downhill."

John's unemployment benefits run out in a matter of weeks. Sandy complains that he's not looking hard enough for work, and he counters that she doesn't understand: he can't find any.

The couple, who were raised in Monterey and Carmel, is reluctant to leave the area, but they are seriously considering a move to Nevada after depleting their savings and selling off family heirlooms.

Both say that they do not qualify for public assistance based on Sandy's salary.

"I know there are people worse off than us, and people are just going to be critical and say 'get a job,'" Sandy says. "But I don't know how we're going to make it. Christmas is coming. Thank God for the Salvation Army. I feel like someone is just choking me."

The Line Forms Here

In Monterey County, almost 13,000 individuals are currently receiving food stamps. Department of Social Services Food Stamp Analyst Jerry Kulper is worried that it's not enough help.

Kulper emphasizes that California as a whole is underutilizing food stamps-with the result that people are needlessly suffering.

"It's a big issue-we are way below participation as a state," he says. "It's estima- ted that only 48 percent of people who are eligible for assistance are receiving it."

Elliott Robinson, director of Social Services of Monterey County, worries about the state's ability to provide benefits to all those who are eligible in light of the enormous budget shortfall.

With the state facing a huge deficit, Robinson is wondering how the Department of Health and Human Services will make do.

"It's a $1.2 billion takeaway and we remain very concerned," he says. "We try to do everything we can, but the resour-ces are declining as the need is climbing."

He's also watching out for the disturbing trend that may just be hitting the Peninsula-those who have been laid off some time during the past year and are suddenly finding themselves broke.

Nationwide, one million people currently receiving unemployment payments are facing poverty by the end of this year because President George W. Bush declined to extend benefits.

"We haven't seen the impact yet, but we are very concerned," Robinson says. "I've been on a level of alert for people who are recently unemployed. People are becoming less competitive and it trickles down, in the perverse sense of the word."

Outside the Department of Social Services office in Seaside, 30-year-old River lights up a Camel cigarette while she waits for a check. Her eight-year-old daughter wraps her arms tightly around her mother's waist. The two wear matching amber butterfly pendants that glint in the sun.

"It's depressing coming here," River says. "It makes you feel like poor white trash. I make about $40 a day after taxes, and I'm raking in $1,000 for some asshole."

River squints as she blows smoke away from her child.

"I never foresaw anything like this happening," she says. "I waited until I was destitute to come here. But everyone in the office was so nice and helpful. There's entirely too much paperwork, but I'm glad it's here."

A Big Sur single mother who lost her job as a retail clerk after missing work to be with her child, River leans on friends and family in the community and gets by with a fairly inexpensive rental situation. But she wants more.

"I think what I want is what everyone wants-a good job that makes you feel good about yourself," she says. "Being treated like a number is discouraging."

Inside the lobby, a nicely dressed older couple sits uncomfortably in plastic chairs, arms folded across their chests. I approach and ask if I can talk to them about their visit to Social Services.

"No, I don't think so," the white-haired man says. "We don't have any previous experience dealing with agencies like this."

Quietly, he leans over to the young couple sitting next to him dancing a baby on their knee and whispers, "We've been here since noon. We ran out of medication and had to come."

Outside, River laughs as I walk off without any more interviews.

"No one wanted to talk to you, huh?" she says. "It's kind of degrading."

Guns or Butter?

Nationwide, times are getting tougher for more and more people, while forecasts of recovery are mixed. Some economists threaten the possibility of a double-dip recession, while others point to signs of economic growth: like the fact that workers requesting unemployment benefits have recently dropped.

There's plenty of verifiable bad news: 1.5 million United States workers are running out of their unemployment benefits--the highest number in twenty years. And there's a growing realization that state and federal agencies, already overwhelmed, will be unable to keep up with the need as budgets are slashed in favor of military spending and tax cuts, while formerly middle class workers find themselves jobless.

"It's a guns-and-butter issue," says Tom Melville of Monterey's Coalition of Homeless Service Providers. "There's less money for domestic social programs and we're really apprehensive what it's going to look like. HUD has said they want to eliminate chronic homelessness in ten years. We're all for it, but they're flat-lining the budget."

Still, Melville believes that through consensus building and working closely with local agencies like Monterey County's Department of Social Services, results are possible."We've been made a national model for the US Department of Health and Human Services," he says. "We serve a higher percentage of the homeless population than most communities. We've really worked not to make it somebody's political football."

Articles reprinted courtesy of Monterey County Weekly
© 2004 Milestone Communications Inc. All rights reserved.

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