Rachel Brown is jittery today. She sits in the Family Promise Day Center with one eye on her children who are playing nearby. She is feeling nervous because this afternoon she will go for a job interview. Rachel is half African-American (she mentions that her father was the first black attorney in Vallejo) and half Cuban. She is going for a position as a Cuban-English translator.
Rachel, 32, and her husband lived for a long time in San Jose but became homeless in Sacramento. Her husband was a Bay Area limousine driver whose car, through no fault of his own, caught on fire on a bridge. He was able to save four of his passengers but five of them died. Even though he wasn’t culpable, he was fired from his job. He started going to therapy. Rachel says he has a lot of anxiety surrounding the accident, so much so that he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and has had a hard time at subsequent jobs.
A common story when people are struggling to maintain jobs, the couple got behind in payments. They lost their Sacramento dwelling and paid to stay in motels because they couldn’t save enough to rent an apartment. They called Next Move Shelter but were unable to get in. When they called Family Promise Rachel says “one of the ladies did an intake over the phone. The next morning they took us in. November 11th. We have been here all through the holidays and they really took good care of us.”
The parents and their children, 9 and 6, go each evening to their lodging in the church that is sheltering and feeding families in the Family Promise rotation system.
Rachel’s husband is working now and Rachel hopes to be at a job soon too. Since they have been part of Family Promise, they have saved some money but they have $1,095 to pay back to make up for their eviction and get the debt cleared off their credit report. “Here they help us with resources. They tell you people you need to contact and send out faxes for you,” Rachel says. “I can get phone calls here too. It is probably the best family shelter here in Sacramento. All the pictures on these walls are success stories.
“But you have to be willing,” she says. “You have to do your footwork.”
Family Promise wants to keep families together and solvent. Marsha Spell, executive director of Family Promise of Sacramento, says she is seeing more and more families desperate for housing, people who have found themselves on the streets because they could not make the rent. Calls from people wanting to be taken into the program are averaging about 115 a month.
The non-profit, one of 187 affiliates in the country, guides families toward lasting independence. “The problem of poverty is complex,” says their website. “It won’t yield to a simple solution or quick fix.” For the past 10 years, the local Family Promise has approached the problem by meeting immediate needs but also by helping alleviate the root causes of their clients’ poverty.
Spell describes her 90-day program: Families are taken into their center and assigned a case manager to work with. Children go to school and parents who are not employed are required to spend their time investigating five jobs a day. Staff helps develop budgets, stressing that rent, food and utilities come first with extras after that. They also look at ongoing expenses people may have, like storage costs, car payments and insurance. “And do they have parking tickets or speeding tickets they didn’t pay,” says Spell. “We want them to address it all, moving forward, with nothing to hold them back.”
There is help with emotional setbacks as well. Family Promise offers marital counseling and anger management courses, to mention a few.
Families use the day center for laundry, showers, telephoning, and researching and sending out resumes on computers. There is a child play area and adults who have not gone to work do chores. In the evening, Family Promise transports everyone to a church host. Churches who participate rotate the family night care once a week. Each family is given a room and meals. Currently 16 churches are a part of the local Family Promise. The faiths included are Catholic, Jewish, United Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Latter Day Saints and non-denominational.
“Each family is different. We focus on families we can help the quickest,” she says. “Most families have been evicted. The next landlord then wants two and a half times the rent to get into the building. So families get motel rooms by the month and run out of money the third week. The motels do not give them a break. The no-tells are the worst. They charge $325 a week at least.
“They could get a good apartment for that much a month but they can’t muster the deposit. So then they usually go from family members’ to friends’ homes couch surfing, but there is limit to that.
“The most common thing we see is that people do not know how to get started again,” Spell says. “They may not have had parents who taught them life skills. They may never have balanced a bank statement or know how to budget themselves. If they get behind in car payments, they might just ignore them so they don’t have to think about the problem.
“We hold them to it while we show them what they have to do to make it work. One family went out to eat at Joe’s Crab Shack and spent over $100. Another was paying $125 for a gym membership. We steer them back to basics. Most of our graduates make it when they leave,” she says proudly. “Many have stayed in contact.”
One hundred and seventy-three families that have graduated in 10 years, 31 this year. That is a national high within the Family Promise system.
Family Promise receives no federal or state monies. “That’s a huge thing,” Spell says. “We are totally dependent on donors and grants. We are not a rich non-profit.” Like their families, “we have to watch every penny.”
Spell never seems to rest. She manages estate sales on the weekends, ferreting out cars, furniture and household supplies she can give to the families. “We get 35 percent of the proceeds. Sometimes we sell cars right on the spot, or when families are moving out, we find out if cars are available.”
She says it takes about $15,000 a month to run the program. Since the 2008 crash, donations have gone down. “But we have just picked up a couple of grants,” she says. “We have to constantly work to keep the numbers up.”
Gentrification: a general term for the arrival of wealthier people in an existing urban district, a related increase in rents and property values, and changes in the district’s character and culture. The term is often used negatively, suggesting the displacement of poor communities by rich outsiders.
Every year the National Low Income Housing Coalition puts out figures that relate to housing and wages, that is the wage a person must earn to afford rentals in communities across the country.
The report, called “Out of Reach” is appropriately titled. For at least the last 20 years, the crisis of unaffordable housing has been growing so that even renters with adequate jobs who think of themselves as middle class are finding themselves in trouble, and low income and extremely low-income renters are forced out onto the streets.
About this displacement, the Sacramento Housing Alliance says “our neighbors, friends and loved ones are making decisions that no one should ever have to make to pay rent—like going without medical and dental care, nutritional foods and adequate child care.
So when is a rental house/apartment considered affordable? Most guidelines say:
a. When an individual or family can pay for it out of their monthly income and still have enough money left for food, clothing, transportation and health care.
b. When the rent and utilities cost no more than 30 percent of the household income. However, this means that a family of four with two working parents earning the minimum wage can only afford $700 in rent or mortgage payment and utilities.
Sacramento’s growing population is creating a demand for rental housing that is not being met. Rents are rising. What was a short time ago an average of $1,021 for a two-bedroom apartment has popped up to around $1,369 a month, according to the online real estate data base Zillow.com. Senior citizens on social security, people receiving unemployment insurance and people with disabilities receiving SSI are but a few of the population who are staring impossible rents in the face.
It is looking grim even for working families. If you take the recent statistic of what was considered fair market rent in Sacramento ($1,021 for a two-bedroom apartment), the affordable rent and utilities without paying more than 30 percent of income on housing, a household must earn an annual salary of $40,840. In California the minimum wage workers earns $8 an hour. To afford the fair market rental for two bedrooms, a minimum wage earner must work 100 hours a week for 52 weeks a year.
Compounding the unavailability problem is Sacramento County’s recent decision to change an ordinance that required developers to include housing for low income and extremely low income people to be built in their future developments. Now developers pay fees into a housing trust for poor people en lieu of building more affordable housing.
And, it looks as though the city will soon enact a similar ordinance revision.
Carol White, a social worker with Family Promise of Sacramento, says families she sees are recently displaced and homeless predominantly because either their landlord has decided to sell their dwelling and has evicted them, or they have been living with others who then move out and they cannot make the rent.
“When you have been evicted from other places, it a big problem in terms of renting anything else. Most of the families we see all seem to have one or two evictions of this nature,” White says.
Family Promise is a non-profit group of approximately 13 Sacramento area church congregations who rotate hosting families at night in their churches and feeding them a warm dinner. During the day, they provide a center in the Loaves and Fishes complex to help them find housing and solutions to problems blocking permanent independence.
Director of the Sacramento Housing Alliance Darryl Rutherford says the calls to his office from desperate people who are finding it impossible to rent a place to live are increasing. “Rents are what the market will bear. Couple this with the low minimum wage, housing is getting out of reach for a lot of people,” he says. The median rent in Sacramento has increased 13 percent over the past year, he says.
Another issue is the proposed development for Sacramento’s downtown area, Rutherford says. “Soon it will be catering to the few elite and ultimately shove the working poor out to the fringes.”
He says people will either move to where they can afford to rent or make do somehow. He is hearing of families doubling and tripling up in rentals and still having a hard time making ends meet.
Rutherford says that with the gentrification of downtown, a lot of small businesses that are not included in the economic development plan will be displaced as well. “Sacramento is definitely not going to meet its goals for sustainability. One can appreciate the focus on redevelopment of downtown but it should be with a minimum impact on the people there.
“You lose a lot of the fiber of the community, all the social connections of the neighborhood, when you drive people out to create condos, boutique hotels (as is the case of the Marshall Hotel on 7th Street which has been a 90-room single room occupancy hotel for low income people) and large hotels.”
“People are not seeing the larger picture in the need for affordable housing. They think it is for ‘those people’—the homeless or extremely poor. They do not think about themselves as being low income. If only more people would understand that we are fighting for the working class.”
A recent article in the Sacramento Bee quoted neighbors of the Loaves & Fishes’ Friendship Park area, where there are plans to expand homeless care facilities, as saying they were afraid that more people will be drawn to their part of Sacramento and cause sanitation and petty crime problems. But with the rapid displacement of people from ever more expensive places to live, a surge in homeless, near homeless, poor, and low income workers searching for cheaper housing is already a fait accompli.
Director of Counseling Programs Tommi Avicolli Mecca at the Housing Rights Commission of San Francisco says right now that city is seeing an epidemic of evictions in working class neighborhoods. “There is a mass exodus of poor and working class people. They are being forced to leave the city or become homeless.”
He says real estate speculators are coming from around the world and availing themselves of the Ellis Act to buy cheap rent control buildings, then evicting tenants. The Ellis Act provides loopholes for landlords in selling their buildings and circumventing municipal rent control provisions like San Francisco’s.
Avicolli Mecca says the new landlords typically divide up or re-rent the spaces for an astronomical fee. “Then we are seeing lots of condos being built. There is a need for affordable housing but the city is not paying attention here either.
“So now you have SROs turned into Air B&Bs or tourist rooms sold for tons of money by the night. We are no longer housing poor people in SROs.
“I live in a city that is supposed to be filled with the most compassionate, understanding and caring people in the world, I see a constant abuse of the homeless and displacement of the working class. Plus we are losing diversity. The African American population is down from 21 to 6 percent and Latinos and LGBT people are being pushed out of the Mission, particularly young people. The Castro is losing older gay men, some of whom have AIDS. Upscale tech types are moving into all these neighborhoods.”
Avicolli Mecca calls San Francisco “a war zone” with working class and strong communities being pushed out. “We are becoming a city of the rich.”
And the poor are going elsewhere. A flood of displaced people coming to the Sacramento area certainly is imminent if people do comparative shopping. A family in the San Francisco Mission’s upscaled buildings will have to earn $30,000 a month to afford their $10,000 a month apartment. In the Castro, the rents for newcomers will soon go as high as $8,500 a month.
“If San Francisco is not dealing with these problems in a caring and compassionate way, I don’t know how anyone can,” he says.
Nationally, says Out of Reach, the 2014 two-bedroom housing wage was $18.92, more than two and a half times the federal minimum wage, and 52 percent higher than it was in 2000. In no state can a full-time minimum wage worker afford a one-bedroom or a two-bedroom rental at Housing and Urban Development-estimated fair market rent.
In December, the National Low Income Housing Coalition urged policy-makers to raise the federal minimum wage and combat income inequality. They also have pushed for funding of the National Housing Trust Fund to build, preserve and rehabilitate rental homes that are affordable for extremely low and very low-income households. “The shortage of affordable housing must be addressed. Expanding the supply of affordable rental homes dedicated to the lowest income renters is a critical and fundamental part of any real solution,“ says the coalition.
“In both rural and urban America, renters are affected by the affordable housing shortage and rents are expected to continue to rise in coming years as the demand grows. Over half of all renters (53 percent) are cost burdened, paying over 30 percent of their income for housing, up from 12 percent” a decade ago.
“The lack of decent housing affordable to low income households has remained a pervasive national issue for over 25 years, affecting every single community across the United States.”
This is my upcoming article for Homeward the Sacramento Street Journal September 2014.
As anyone who is looking for a job in this economy knows, it’s rough out there. There is a largely misunderstood section of the population that has been put in the position of asking other people for money for food, shelter and transportation. Oh wait, that is a job.
But, if you are down on your luck and soliciting money in public places for your own welfare, it’s called panhandling. If Sacramento County has its way, that way of earning your money will be essentially illegal.
While there is a challenge in court, the county is poised to enforce an ordinance that creates large buffer zones between solicitors and potential donors at places where solicitors commonly ask for money, food or work. At first blush, the ordinance seems to address the “safety and welfare of the general public” by making it illegal to solicit in an aggressive or threatening manner. As well it should. Most panhandlers would agree that people should not be followed after saying no to a solicitation. Nor should they be accosted at ATMs, have obscenities hurled at them or feel physically intimidated.
But this is a different matter than peaceable panhandlers who non-aggressively hold signs up and appeal for personal donations. However, the ordinance contains a clause under exemptions stating “Nothing in this …shall be construed to prohibit soliciting for charitable purposes in compliance with the requirements set forth in…this Code.” Sacramento attorney Mark Merin says that distinction makes the ordinance unconstitutional. “This ordinance is vulnerable because it has the exemption for charitable organizations. This is a free speech issue.”
Merin has petitioned the court to issue a preliminary injunction to restrain enforcement of the newly adopted ordinance. The complaint says that “a number of principles have emerged from the case law, which compel the conclusion that Sacramento County’s anti-panhandling law is invalid on it face.”
For one, Merin’s document reads, “solicitation of donations in public forums is a form of non-commercial speech fully protected by the First Amendment.” And, “Individuals who seek donations for their own personal needs and survival are entitled to the same degree of constitutional protection as persons who solicit for other causes. ‘Panhandlers’ and persons who ‘beg’—categories singled out by the Ordinance—are not relegated to some lower rung of the First Amendment.”
Merin, a well-known Sacramento civil rights champion, says any restriction that is content-based has to meet with strict scrutiny. A struggling mother is just as entitled to ask you for alms as a save-the-whales organizer is entitled to ask you to sign a petition, or a Girl Scout is free to ask you to buy cookies. “If the ordinance is to be selectively enforced, then it is unconstitutional as applied,” he says. “You can regulate panhandling. You can prohibit all solicitations in a city or county, but that would mean all solicitors, including for charities.”
People who violate the ordinance more than two times within a six month period will be found guilty of a misdemeanor. Merin details how expensive for taxpayers the legal process will be if people are arrested for solicitation, even if each person is kept in custody just 30 days. Tallying only the cost of police, jailors, court personnel and judges, the figure mounts easily to thousands, he says.
Sgt. Lisa Bowman, media relations representative for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department says they are aware of the litigation. She says the county has agreed to a 60-day period of non-enforcement so the police can “prepare people. Officers will give warnings, still just verbal advisements, until the period is up in September.”
Bowman said the department has had ongoing complaints about aggressive solicitation. “Also about people who stand in traffic. Those are a couple of major concerns.”
But the plaintiffs in Merin’s complaint include homeless people who rely on soliciting donations for their basic needs in the areas of the county affected by the ordinance. The Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee also is a plaintiff because some members of the homeless advocates’ organization distribute their newspaper in exchange for donations for their own needs. All plaintiffs “will face the choice of risking criminal penalties or choosing to give up their First Amendment right to seek donations free from unconstitutional restrictions,” reads the complaint.
Merin not only wants to see the ordinance overturned, he would like to see attitudinal changes about solicitation so that people can be given an opportunity to take care of themselves. “A lot of them are out at least five hours a day in the same place. They make minimum wage if they are fortunate. This is not something they want to have to do. It is degrading for them.”
For Merin, the “much bigger issue is why we have panhandling,” why so many people are dependent on it for their livelihood and “put in the position of imposing on others. We don’t have a society that honors helping those who are less fortunate,” he says. “Programs for public welfare and public housing have been cut out, along with job training programs. Rich people don’t want to have to pay taxes. There is insatiable greed.”
The safety net is shredded, he says, and we are not a society that “gives things out. If you are poor, it’s your own fault. You are told to take responsibility for yourself. Tell a mother with three children and no place to go to take financial responsibility.”
Old people are especially vulnerable, he says. “I walk around my neighborhood and see at least 20 people sleeping in doorways who are elderly or infirm.”
One of these could easily be Angie, a 63-year-old panhandler who spends two or three hours a day at the exit from a Sacramento shopping center. She still lives in a house her father built near the shopping center. The home is no longer hers but she is allowed to sleep on a couch. Her husband bought a motor home two weeks before he died. It is no longer hers and she lost all her possessions.
She has no family left. Her sister, mother and brother died within two weeks of each other. “I have all the death certificates and took care of the funerals,” she says. “I have nobody to ask for help. I don’t like to ask for help out here but I have a hard time getting by every day.”
Angie is slight and in ill health but keeps smiling at the people lined up to leave the mall. She can’t spend too much time out on the pavement in the 95-degree heat because she has high blood pressure and has had a “slight stroke. I’m on my last leg.”
Another panhandler whom Angie identifies as a deaf man peddles up on his bicycle and hands her a fountain soda. He hangs around for a while, trying to see if she is OK.
“I mostly stay to myself,” she says. “There are others who come out here and get drunk and violent. I take them aside.” She tries to get across to them what harm they are doing other people who must make their living soliciting. “I cry and tell them about my family and why I am doing this.”
She says the police know her and don’t bother her. Except one who hassles her and gives her tickets. “If she would just talk to me, she might not be so bitter,” Angie says. She has done community service to work off her tickets, “picking up cigarette butts for 40 hours.”
In general, she says people who drive by are not mean spirited, although one person sprayed her with pepper spray. “But a lot of good people have been in the same boat and can relate. They give me food and stuff. If it weren’t for the ones giving me a couple of dollars, I wouldn’t be here at all.”
A man who does not give his name, puts down his “Just Hungry, Thank you, God Bless” sign and sits in the grass near a Howe Street intersection. He panhandles to support himself and his wife who was “deemed incompetent” in 2008. He received guardianship and lives with his mother-in-law for now.
He cannot understand how it makes sense to arrest people for what he refers to as “signing.”
“It will clutter up the judicial system severely. I would rather see a felon behind bars than someone who has been signing.”
Sometimes people pick him up to do work for them. He is grateful but still is looking for a full-time job. It’s a circular problem because looking for a job cuts down on the time he must spend asking for money and then he is short of food. He dreams of buying a farm near Elk Grove where he could be self-sufficient.
Both his parents died not too long ago. He served in the Army, which he says did him a lot of good. “I spent a lot of time scrubbing pots and pans, but those years straightened my butt up.”
When asked what he would do if he could no longer solicit money, he starts to cry softly about the hardship on his wife. “I would be up shit creek,” he says. “Really bad. We wouldn’t be eating.”
A young man near a McDonald’s in the county holds a sign that is humorous if self-deprecating: “Dirty, Broke and Ugly.” Occasionally he flips to the other side: “Addicted to Food.” Although he is from Sacramento, right now he is trying to just pass through on his way to what he hopes is another migrant job. He has come from Northern California most recently and plans to check out jobs near Davis.
He stayed with his sister last night but doesn’t know where he will be tonight. Probably outside. He wants to get to the day shelter in Davis where he will be will be able to shower and do laundry.
He agrees with attorney Merin that not being able to sign is a freedom of speech issue and hopes the county rescinds its ordinance. People out here aren’t ugly to him, he says. “It’s the bureaucrats that are ugly.”
He has traveled 32 states doing migrant jobs. “But this is the toughest job I’ve ever had.”