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Good afternoon, and welcome to the Fresnoland Lab newsletter. Today is Tuesday, Feb. 16.
This week in Fresnoland, Monica wrote about how water suppliers are struggling because of the pandemic-related economic downturn and how this could impact their ability to keep water running. She also wrote about consumers in the central San Joaquin Valley and how much they owe in water-related debt and its implications. Danielle wrote about the right to counsel proposal being considered by the Fresno City Council and the tradeoffs in a proposal by a Fresno City councilman to make all rides on FAX free.
It’s Danielle Bergstrom, policy editor for Fresnoland, here.
Last Wednesday morning, at 6 a.m., Ginger Smithfield and her four kids officially became homeless.
I wrote about her story on Tuesday, as part of a larger challenge related to the lack of legal representation for tenants in Fresno. She’s a single mom. She was evicted, according to her landlord, because she violated the terms of her lease. She says her landlord was punishing her for having four kids in a one-bedroom apartment.
She lost her eviction case through a default — meaning, she didn’t respond to the lawsuit within the legally required time. An attorney friend of hers told her she was covered by California’s eviction protections. She wasn’t.
As soon as she found out she was going to be evicted, she started looking for another place to live. She was having a hard time finding anything — not necessarily because of money, but because she has a bad credit history.
The thing is, Ginger isn’t poor enough to receive a lot of help. She says she brings in over $4,000 a month to care for her four adopted children. Two are developmentally disabled — they were born addicted to meth, she said.
“I have a master’s degree in information technology. I used to make over $100,000 a year working at the airport in San Diego,” she said. But a divorce with her partner began a domino effect of unfortunate situations.
She and her partner split ways while she still lived in San Diego. But taking care of kids with special needs was a full-time job, so she took an early retirement.
That’s when it started to get difficult. She says she has bad credit from medical bills and student loan debt. She moved to Fresno three years ago for cheaper rents. And now, with an eviction on her record? It’s going to be a lot harder to find housing.
A week before she was evicted, the sheriff showed up at her door and gave her notice.
She started scrambling, looking for a place to live. No luck. She says she called the housing authority, looking for an apartment. Waiting lists abound. She said she makes too much money for a Section 8 voucher.
She called the Department of Social Services. They said they couldn’t help her until she was officially homeless.
The day before she got evicted, I made a few calls to people I know who could help. At the housing authority, I spoke with Angie Nguyen (full disclosure: she is on the Fresnoland Board of Directors). As we were talking on the phone, brainstorming options, she was texting people she knew for answers. She found out that the new motel they had converted into transitional housing for homeless families was already full.
I called a homeless shelter I knew of that took in kids, and got a voicemail message.
My friend Elaine connected me with Brad Hardie, who runs Regency Property Management. He said he might have room at a shelter. Great! But, he couldn’t reach Ginger. She wasn’t returning my messages at that point, either.
I finally got in touch with Ginger late Wednesday morning, after the sheriff’s deputies had officially locked her and her kids out. She texted me a photo of her kids and dogs sitting in their hot car, trying to figure out what was next. She was exasperated.
Ginger explained that she wasn’t getting any calls from the last day because she had an unpaid cell phone bill. She paid it that morning, and then started getting a flood of messages. She was still sorting through it all when I spoke with her. One message, from her kids’ school in northeast Fresno, was frantically trying to track the kids down.
Her next step was to try to get a motel voucher at the Fresno County Department of Social Services. I drove over there on Wednesday afternoon to meet up with her. She got a voucher — for just two nights — at a motel near Ashlan and Blackstone, several miles away from her kids’ school. There weren’t a lot of options for a family of her size, so she took what she could get. I met her kids. Considering the hellish day everyone had gone through, they were in good spirits, playing and chasing each other in front of the DSS offices. She was just happy to get to rest for a little bit.
On Thursday morning, Ginger called me at 8:30, in tears. The motel was dirty. She wasn’t able to get her kids into clean clothes yet, because they had hurriedly put all their belongings in a storage unit before they were evicted. The wi-fi was spotty, making it nearly impossible to get any of her kids at least logged into distance learning.
“I never, ever, thought this could happen to me,” she said. “I don’t deserve this. My kids don’t deserve this. How could my landlord think this is okay?”
Friday brought much better news: Ginger was able to get another motel voucher, this time for seven nights. They were able to get some clean clothes from the storage unit. She was able to get her kids to school to enjoy the Valentines’ festivities that day. And, she got in touch with Brad Hardie of Regency Property — and they said they think they’ll be able to find a place for her to live this week.
I asked how they were doing with food. She said that the DSS worker told her to visit the food bank. (She’s not on food stamps at the moment.) But given that she’s living in a motel, without a kitchen, she wasn’t sure about the prepared food options at the food bank. On Friday night, I sent them a meal delivery from Boston Market, so they could get a break from hamburgers and convenience store food.
I texted with her this morning. She’s not feeling well. She thinks the stress of the last week is catching up with her immune system. She’s trying to summon the energy to bring her kids with her to Regency Property Management so they can get their housing sorted out. It’s a lot to handle.
Ginger’s story is likely familiar for many families facing housing insecurity right now. I’m sharing these details to help illuminate how difficult it can be, once someone is unhoused, to get back to a stable situation.
If you’re compelled to help, I’ll be compiling a list of ways you can support homeless families soon. (If you’d like to donate directly to Ginger’s family, please email me at email@example.com.)
And now, the week’s top reads:
(For the most recent local coronavirus updates, visit www.fresnobee.com/coronavirus.)
Housing, transportation, and land use
The mayor’s project to move homeless people from prominent freeway embankments and into housing continues to roll along. Fresno Bee
California’s state auditor Elaine Howle said that the state’s approach to tackling the problem is fragmented and incomplete and hinders any progress that could be made. Fresno Business Journal
A boom in warehouses in the Inland Empire is leaving lower-income communities of color with few choices, when industrial zoning comes to their neighborhoods. CalMatters
Californians are fleeing the state and moving to others with lower cost of living. Inadvertently, this move is raising housing costs in other states. New York Times
Why can’t the government stop evictions? Bloomberg CityLab
The federal government, once again, loves California’s high-speed rail project. Streetsblog San Francisco
Economy and neighborhood iInequality
Indigenous residents in Fresno County are pushing to rename Squaw Valley. Fresno Bee
Asian moms have dropped out of the workforce more than any other group due to the pandemic, new data shows. Quartz
Dinuba is finding that its tax sharing deal with its Best Buy warehouse produced a financial boon for the city. Bloomberg Tax
Americans are now earning the same amount in wages and salaries that they did before the virus struck — even with nearly 9 million fewer people working, highlighting how disproportionately America’s job losses have afflicted workers in lower-income occupations rather than in higher-paying industries. Associated Press
Americans who lost their job or some of their income in 2020 should pay attention to a new, one-time provision that ensures they don’t lose access to valuable tax credits as well. AP News.com
Water and air quality
The Trump administration had completely disregarded federal scientists and regulators who warned of risks to wildlife posed by a California water management plan. Fresno Bee
Can Gov. Gavin Newsom fulfill his promise to reach a compromise deal and a lasting peace to the incessant water war between farmers, cities, anglers and environmentalists. Fresno Bee
Most California drivers inhale carcinogens – and the danger is from inside the car, new research says. Fresno Bee
Fossil fuels contributed to 8.7 million air pollution-related deaths in 2018, research finds. The Guardian
The Environmental Protection Agency said in a federal judicial filing that the Biden administration will not resurrect the Clean Power Plan, a controversial Obama-era policy, but will instead propose a new rule aimed at limiting greenhouse gas pollution from the nation’s power plants, which represent the second-largest source of emissions. Washington Post