On the cover North Coast Journal

May 12, 2005



On the cover: Three-year-old Emily Tucker of Eureka. Photo by Chris Wisner, courtesy of Food for People.
When ends don't meet : The lives of low-income children in Humboldt County

Over a period of three months, journalism students from Humboldt State University, as part of a class on investigative reporting taught by Marcy Burstiner, interviewed more than 100 people in and around Humboldt County, including families, doctors, aid and social workers, and criminal justice professionals about the causes and repercussions of child and family poverty here. This story came out of that investigation. The complete findings will be published on the Internet later this year.

The students who contributed to the story were: Tara Apperson, Ray Aspuria, Ashley Brunn, Lucas Cebulski, Aimee Clizbe, Daniel Crawshaw, Adam Creighton, Robert Deane, Joseph Freeman, Brandie Glass, Jennifer Henrikson, Cerena Johnson, Shyama Kuver, Sarah Lewers, Jason Major, Kendra McQueen, Jordan Pitkin, Roe Pressley, Caitlin Sieh, Oliver Symonds, Shannon Taylor, Nick Tellin, Kimberly Thorpe, and Karen Wilkinson.



[Julie Tucker holding young daughter Emily Tucker]The 40-year-old Eureka single mother of three tries to scrape together enough money to pay the bills each month, with the help of her part-time lawn care business and her two oldest children's jobs. And she occasionally stops by the food bank, as she did late last month with her youngest, 3-year-old Emily, to pick up a free box of food. [photo at right]

Last Friday, though, she was tapped out. PG&E had just given her a 15-day notice to pay up or have the power shut off.

That morning, she laughed and praised Emily as the little girl jumped around nonstop at her "school," a gymnastics class down the street from their home. She laughed through the worry about the $165 heating bill.

"I got half of it, but where am I gonna get the other half?" she said. "I gotta go talk to them today and see if they'll take [it]. I don't know if they will or not."

Thousands of families in Humboldt County, like Tucker's, barely get by. Those with homes spend too much of their income or government assistance on rent. Those without raise children in crowded motel rooms and out of cars in highway rest stops. Teenagers whose parents can't care for them wait for openings in transitional homes, and no homes exist for children with severe behavioral problems. Children wait months or years for dental care and some only get medical treatment for serious conditions when civic groups pay for their transportation to San Francisco. Teachers and principals provide extra food for children they suspect won't eat dinner and give hand-me-downs to children whose clothes don't fit.

For mid-career professionals and retirees from the cities down south, this redwood paradise looks very inviting. But impoverished children grow up in a very different Humboldt County.

44 rooms, one stove

Pam Conoboy, 42, has lived with her husband and three children, ages 4, 6 and 7, in one room of the Budget Motel on Fourth Street in Eureka for a year. For the $650-a-month rent they get one double bed for the children and one for themselves, cable television, a microwave and a mini fridge. All residents share a stove and a laundry room where management recently installed a new washing machine. She said her family might now be on the street if the manager hadn't taken pity on them a year ago and let them stay free for the first two weeks.

"I thank God for a place like this," she said.

Photo at left: Pam Conoboy and her daughter, 4-year-old Jessica, in their room at the Budget Motel.]

Upstairs, Millicent, 11, Danny, 10, and Sara, 8, share a room with their parents. To ensure they eat full meals, their mother, 44-year-old Keri Patterson, buys wholesale meat, and rents a meat locker with five other people at the motel because the freezers in the rooms are too small. On Thanksgiving, she cooked five turkeys that fed five families. "Just because I'm homeless and live in a motel doesn't mean I ain't gonna feed my kids the right way," she said.

In that regard, Patterson's children are fortunate.

Last year, 7,907 children in Humboldt County were eligible for free or reduced priced breakfasts and lunches. At Bloomfield Elementary in Arcata, where 60 percent of the students receive free or subsidized meals, teachers suspect that for some, it may be the only meal they will receive that day.

[Mom Keri Patterson and her three children in their room]Brian Lovell, who runs the afterschool program, said he notices that at school meal periods, there are certain children who eat all the food offered to them, plus leftovers. Even so, some still fail to maintain a healthy weight. Those are the ones he fears aren't getting fed at home. In those cases, he talks to school administrators about how they might help. "We do try to refer families to services whenever we can," he said.

Many families, like Tucker's, also rely on Food for People, the local food bank. In addition to monthly food boxes, which helped 887 households in April, the organization has provided summer lunches for low-income kids who might otherwise go hungry.

[Photo at right: The Patterson family in their room at the Budget: bottom to top, Sara, Millicent and Danny, with their mother Keri.]

But it's a financial stretch, because the federal reimbursements don't cover all the expenses, said Anne Holcomb, executive director for Food for People. "We've lost money every year on the program. We just can't afford to keep doing that."

To continue the lunches -- more than 11,000 each summer -- the organization is launching a special fund drive. "If we can't raise $30,000 in the next month, we won't be able to do it," Holcomb said.

$19,200 a year=not poor

Many people struggling to raise their children get little or no government assistance. That's because the eligibility levels reflect a rate established half a century ago, said Siddiq Kilkenny, director of Northcoast Children's Services, Head Start and Early Head Start programs. The poverty rate (now $19,157 or less for a family of four) was set in 1955 based on the average food costs for a family of four, and does not take into account the high costs of housing, health care and transportation. It makes no sense in today's economic world, he said.

The Children's Defense Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group, maintains that in order to meet minimal requirements, a family of four needs at least $28,296 a year.

Lucinda Jackson of Eureka was 17 when she gave birth to her son Quinn, age 8. She used to be on welfare. Now that she's working as a paralegal, she gets no government support. After rent, child care and Quinn's health insurance, she ends up with less money at the end of the month than she used to, but it's important to her that Quinn see that they are making it on their own.

[Bike in hallway of Budget Motel]"As a parent you have to set a good example," Jackson said. "I wouldn't want Quinn to see me skating by. He needs to see me succeeding in life."

Those who do get aid don't get much. A family of three can receive up to $371 a month in food stamps and under Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) up to $671 a month in general welfare. Federal Section 8 housing vouchers pay up to two-thirds of a family's rent, but the waiting list is more than a year long and too few landlords accept the vouchers, advocates say.

Many families are forced to choose motels when they cannot find other housing. But paying for even the cheapest motel rooms, about $200 a week, leaves little room to save money for first and last month's rent, and unless a family can do that, they can't get an apartment.

Then there's another hurdle. "Many homeless people can actually pay rent," said Maureen Chase, director of the Homeless Education Project for Eureka schools. "But their credit history prevents them from getting into places." Landlords also require residents to earn take-home pay of three times their monthly rent. For a $700-a-month apartment, that would require an income of more than $30,000 a year.

Affordable apartments are so difficult to find that Susan Opalach grabbed hers as soon as she found it. "I signed the lease for this place sight unseen," she says of her two-bedroom in McKinleyville. "I know that wasn't smart on my part, but I had to get my kids off the street."

She and her two young daughters share one bedroom and took in a roommate to afford the $560 a month in rent. Her daughters must keep their bikes inside the building because the management won't allow people to store belongings on their balconies.

"The size of this apartment is depressing," Opalach said. "My kids can't even have toys or books. My [adult] daughter rents a storage space for me just so that I can have someplace to put my girls' toys."

Things were worse for her not too long ago. "I was homeless for a year," she said. "I was sleeping at friend's houses and I lived in the Arcata House for a year." Living at the Arcata House, a transitional housing program for homeless families, allowed Opalach to save money for the apartment, and local charities donated furniture and other goods. She would like to give her daughters a better life, but she feels stuck.

Hard to feel good

When children are plagued with uncertainty about where their next home or meal will come from, it creates other problems, those who work with children said.

Pat Graves, school psychologist for Eureka City Schools, said that while most students are absent on average of three to five days during a 180-day school year, extreme poverty and homelessness can cause a student to miss between 25 and 35 days a year.

Aid workers see a strong connection between child poverty, hunger, mental health problems and drug abuse. Beverly Morgan Lewis, director of social services for Humboldt County, said parents with mental health disorders and drug problems can't hold jobs and have a difficult time supporting both their drug habits and their families. "If they are spending money on drugs," she said, "they are left with less money for food, medicine and housing."

Tanya Gilbreth, who works at the women and children's wing of the Eureka Rescue Mission, has watched as children, waiting for their mother to be drug tested, pray she tests clean because a positive result means they're out on the street. It's the hardest part of her job, she said.

[Doctor with stethoscope listening to baby's heart, while mom and older daughter look on]Dr. Norman Bell is a physician at the Open Door Clinic in Arcata. He said children are most developmentally vulnerable in their first years of life. When children live in poor conditions, and when there is substance abuse in the family, early intervention and treatment are crucial to prevent mental illness. Children as young as 2 are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and aggressive behaviors often develop within a child's first years of school.

[Photo at right: Dr. Norman Bell of Open Door Clinic in Arcata examines 10-month-old Pedro Gonzalez while his mother, Leticia Gonzalez and his sister, Mariaelena Gonzalez, observe.]

While doctors are required to report children who are abused or living in unsafe conditions, it is otherwise difficult to intervene unless the family seeks help, Bell said. And even when families seek help, it can't always be found, at least not in Humboldt County, where there is a severe lack of pediatric psychologists and psychiatrists. Often, doctors or social workers refer children to County Mental Health, which employs two child psychiatrists and a number of counselors and can treat only the most severe cases. Left untreated, mental disorders in children can develop into bipolar or post-traumatic syndromes in adolescence, Bell said.

Breaking the cycle

Teenagers whose parents abuse drugs and alcohol often become drug abusers, and many eventually find themselves out on the streets.

Patt Sweeney sees roughly 120 of these teens a year as a program manager with the nonprofit Youth Services Bureau, which operates the Launch Pad Transitional Center and an emergency shelter called Our House in Eureka.

The goals of the program are to house the teens and to help them learn how to live on their own. "We teach kids job skills, which is often very challenging for them to understand, because they never had role models who worked," Sweeney said.

Unfortunately, these services are getting cut. Over the last 18 months, Launch Pad has lost at least half of its funding, mostly from the loss of a federal grant, and is now able to take in 50 percent fewer young people than it used to, he said. He fears that if Launch Pad and other such facilities are not available, many at-risk youths will end up on welfare.

That creates a cycle of poverty that's hard to break.

[Mom with young son on her lap]
Above: Lelia Brand with her 2-year-old son at the Food for People Food Bank in Eureka.

Betty Matthias, 21, is trying to do just that. When Matthias was 16, she and her mother were evicted from their Eureka house after their landlord sold it, and she dropped out of high school in the 11th grade. Now, she lives at the Budget Motel with her 2-year-old son and five other people, including three kids -- all in one room. She takes adult education classes and will finish high school this year, after which she hopes to go to community college and ultimately become an accountant.

"I'll be one of those people you need to have around," she said.

The Serenity Inn, once a typical tourist motel on Broadway in Eureka, now has a $100,000 contract with the county to provide homeless families with free or reduced rate rooms during the winter, as long as they are clean and sober. During the rest of the year, it is a low-income motel, providing rooms for $550 a month.

[Mom helping young son stand up, seen through doorway of motel room]Tara Segall, 26, is thankful to have it. She lives at the Serenity with her son, Jeffrey Barrett Jr., 2, her fiancé, and their three other children. She's made the room homey; a Bug's Life bedspread covers one half of a bunk bed, toys are tucked in corners and Jeffrey sleeps on a Winnie-the-Pooh fold-out couch that he loves, she said.

[Photo at left: Tara Segall with her son, Jeffrey, at the Serenity Inn]

Segall, who is pregnant, was making "good money" -- $9 an hour -- working as a certified nursing assistant until she was put on disability last month. Her fiancé works overnight at Sun Valley flower farm. Her dream, she said, is to buy a house.

"That's my main goal. I'm getting a list of places that help with the down payment."

To help families break out of the poverty cycle, the county, city of Eureka, Redwood Community Action Agency and other nonprofit organizations opened the Multiple Assistance Center for the Homeless (MAC) on April 20 adjacent to the Eureka Target store. Housing approximately 12 families depending on their size, it is intended to provide a safe and stable environment for families to get back on their feet, with a play area for children, classrooms, laundry facilities, a kitchen and dining room. It will also provide instruction on parenting, proper nutrition, applying for government aid, finding after-school programs as well as drug and alcohol counseling. The goal is to help families become self-reliant within the maximum two-year residency period.

"We try to recreate a real-life scenario," said Simone Taylor, the director of family services for the RCAA. "We don't do anything for families that they could be doing for themselves."

But getting the center open took 13 years, largely because of objections from business owners and neighbors who feared it would attract panhandling, graffiti, crime and litter, Taylor said.

Forward, back

One of the most roundly applauded programs is Head Start, a federal program run locally by Northcoast Children's Services in Arcata. Designed to level the academic playing field for all children, it's a comprehensive preschool program that tries to meet the emotional, social, health, nutritional and psychological needs of pre-kindergarten age children of low-income families.

Northcoast Children's Services also run the state preschools and state-funded child care programs.

But help is getting harder to come by. In his 2005-06 budget, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposes cutting $1.2 billion from health and human services, raising eligibility requirements for Temporary Aid to Needy Families while reducing benefits, and requiring monthly premiums for Medi-Cal while reducing its dental benefits.

And at the federal level, Congress has set cost-cutting targets that are likely to mean deep cuts in nutrition programs such as food stamps and WIC, the Women Infants and Children food program.

Some 40 percent of Humboldt County residents are covered by Medi-Cal, which funds the costs of most but not all medical procedures. Many private doctors and dentists don't accept it. For many, that means undergoing long waits at the Open Door Clinic, one of the few places that treat people regardless of the ability to pay, or going to the hospital.

[shelf of free bread at food bank]Mary Johnson, manager of social services at Mad River Hospital, said many families ending up at the emergency room are foregoing preventive treatment. "The `H' sign on the side of the road used to mean hospital, but now it means help," Johnson said. Even those with Medi-Cal or insurance have a difficult time finding treatment for serious disorders and few can afford to travel to San Francisco where medical care is available.

Transportation remains one of the toughest problems poor families face on a daily basis, making everything from finding doctors and getting social services to getting food and doing laundry time-consuming and costly.

The high costs of transportation means Opalach's daughters don't always have clean clothes to wear to school. The three typically go through 28 loads of laundry a month, but that's $70 a month at the laundromat, and she doesn't always have that cash, she said. A friend offered to let her use his washing machine, but with gas costing more than $2.50 a gallon, she can't afford to drive there, she said.

Yvonne Philips, 36, and her three children, ages 14, 7 and 21 months, live out of their station wagon and face the problem of transportation every night. She must take her son to Sunny Brae Middle School each day, but because a city ordinance prevents people from sleeping in their cars on city streets, they must drive 15 miles each night to the nearest highway rest stop.

"When you don't have money and you don't have gas," she said, "how are you supposed to do that?"

Through all of their suffering, though, low-income kids are often quiet about it.

Elaine Reed, a membership executive with the Girl Scouts who visits schools as part of a program called GirlQuest, has seen children brought to school and picked up in shopping carts. She said some girls talk to her about living with multiple families, in crowded conditions and other hardships, but they never complain.

"These kids know that what they get, they need to appreciate," Reed said.

How you can help

307 West 14th St.
Eureka, 95501

1005 11th St.
Arcata, 95521

(runs Multiple Assistance Center and
Youth Services Bureau)
904 G St.
Eureka, 95501
110 Second St.
Eureka, 95501

2201 Broadway
Suite 705
Oakland, 94610
(510) 663-3224



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