When welfare applicants finally prove that they exist, and show their material worth to be nothing, they usually receive far less than they need to live on. That's what happened to Curtis and Concita Cates. The maximum amount of aid that a single adult is eligible for in Santa Barbara, they learned, is $291 per month – $200 in food stamps, $91 in cash assistance. The waiting time for Section 8 housing, if you have priority status, is six months to a year. If you belong to the vast majority who don't have priority status – if you're not elderly, disabled or a veteran with dependents – the wait is between four and eight years.
Most of the social-service systems in the United States function not to help people like Curtis and Concita Cates get back to where they were, to a point of productive stability, but simply to keep them from starving – or, more often, to merely reduce the chances that they will starve. Millions of middle-class Americans are now receiving unemployment benefits, and many find themselves compelled by the meagerness of the assistance to shun opportunity and forgo productivity in favor of a ceaseless focus on daily survival. The system's incoherence and contempt for its dependents fluoresce brilliantly in the wake of a historic event like the Great Recession. When floodwaters cover our homes, we expect that FEMA workers with emergency checks and blankets will find us. There is no moral or substantive difference between a hundred-year flood and the near-destruction of the global financial system by speculators immune from consequence. But if you and your spouse both lose your jobs and assets because of an unprecedented economic cataclysm having nothing to do with you, you quickly discover that your society expects you and your children to live malnourished on the streets indefinitely. That kind of truth, says Nancy Kapp, "really screws with people's heads."
When Curtis and Concita were living in the parking lot of the Santa Barbara Community Church with Canaan, they used constant forward motion to evade despair. "I just wanted to wake up every morning, see the sunrise and be like, 'Let's go!'" Curtis says. Getting on the road was normalizing: using the truck as it was intended to be used, entering into conventional routines. The family would shower at a friend's or relative's house before dropping Canaan off at school. In the afternoons, he had sports, followed by activities at the Boys & Girls Club. "Spend as much time as you can in school and playing sports," his parents urged. "Wear yourself out."
"My son's a good pretender," Curtis says. "He has a knack for finding used clothes at stores and putting things together. All the kids at school thought he had money because he always dressed nice. He never had any gadgets or anything, but he always tried to make himself presentable."
"But there would be times he would ask for stuff," Concita is moved to say. "And I'm like, 'Do you even realize that we're homeless and living in a car? You want me to go buy you new shoes and clothes?'"
While Canaan was in school, Curtis and Concita would head to the local Employment Development Office to search for jobs online. They applied so diligently that they had to wait for new openings to pop up on job sites. The process was dismally impersonal, and their homelessness cast a pall over the search. Many employers demanded a permanent address – "that was the number-one thing we needed," Curtis says. In job interviews, they tried to hide the fact they were homeless, which often proved impossible. The interviewers assumed – Curtis and Concita could read it on their faces – that there were other causes of their homelessness: mental-health issues, drug addiction, a criminal past.
"You're trying to tell somebody, 'Listen, I'm just the person I was,'" Curtis says. "'I was working, things didn't end up the way they should have, and now I'm homeless. I'm not a dirtbag, I'm not a drug user.' But a lot of times people look at you and give you that vibe." Clothes could also be a problem. Once, sitting in an interview in a dress shirt and dollar tie he'd picked out at a thrift store, Curtis realized he'd forgotten to take the tag off the back of the shirt.
They learned where the free food was. One charity had a weekly farmer's market, so they would line up for fresh produce. For hot meals, which become tremendously valuable when you're on the street, they'd go to a charity called Casa Esperanza. I ask whether they generally had enough to eat.
"Not really," Concita says. "I'm glad my kid did, because he gets free lunches at school, free breakfast. But you don't have anywhere to warm up your food. You buy crackers. Dinner, we improvised and did what we could. A lot of the charity places, it's the same stuff over and over. 'Here's some dry beans and dry rice.' We didn't have anywhere to cook it. Or you would get the same bread; you have the same meal every night, in different forms. For plates and silverware, we'd just use the packaging, or sometimes I'd get it from McDonald's or Taco Bell."
The truck payment – $424 a month – was always a problem. "Without it, we don't have shelter, we don't have transportation, we don't have a way of getting to job interviews," Curtis says. When they got their unemployment benefits, much of the money went straight to the truck payment. "My thinking was, as long as I'm throwing them money every freaking week, maybe it'll keep the repo guy off of us," he says. "And we dodged that, too – we didn't let anyone know where we were at."
Curtis asked people if they needed their houses cleaned or lawns mowed. He offered the services of his pickup. He learned to collect cans and bottles and redeem them at recycling centers. One sunny Monday, he was in a park picking cans out of recycling bins. He looked around and noticed several other homeless men doing the same thing. "Yeah, I'm homeless," he thought.
When the family got back to the church parking lot in the evenings, they didn't want to talk to anybody. "I just wanted to pull up, drop the seats, go to sleep," Curtis says. There was an electrical outlet outside the church, and they had a DVD player and an extension cord, so they could watch movies. They didn't need curtains because "all the breathing steams up the windows." The truck had an extended cab; Curtis and Concita reclined in the front seats and gave the backseat to Canaan: They wanted to make sure he slept well.
It was odd to be confined in such a small space. "Sometimes it was a little too intimate," Curtis says. There were times when Concita wanted to give up. "I'm going to take my son and go back home to my brothers and sisters, and you stay here," she'd tell Curtis. They'd fight, but Curtis would say that they needed to stay together, and ultimately Concita would agree. "I always wanted to be with my family," she says.
The worst moments came when they felt immobilized, indefinitely tethered to the lot. "That's when you really feel like you're going crazy," he says. "You feel the pressure of everything: 'I'm not doing anything. I'm not being productive. I'm not making anything happen.' So any friends we had anywhere, we'd offer to cook and clean for them if we could crash that night. This is how it went every night: 'Let me call so-and-so.' 'Hey, can we crash at your pad?'"
Sometimes, through odd jobs and recycling, they saved enough for a night at a Motel 6.
"That was an 'ahhh' moment," Curtis recalls.
"Just to take a shower and lay in a bed," adds Concita. "But then you have to carry all your personal stuff."
"You have to bring all your clothes and everything you have with you," Curtis says. "You carry your life with you."
"Every day I'd pack everything up, make sure everything's secure and then go off and do everything again," Concita says.
"We were battling depression," Curtis says.
"I was," Concita says. "I'd cry all the time for stupid little things. At the time, it probably wasn't stupid, but I can't think about it – I'm going to cry now." She pauses but doesn't cry.
"It takes a lot of your pride," Curtis says. "It's humiliating to be begging for help. I can see how someone can get discouraged and give up, because I felt that way at times, and I'm a motivated person. I have goals in life. I can honestly see how someone that has maybe other issues could just say: 'I don't even want to deal with this.'"
Things have eased up a bit since their Section 8 apartment came through. Curtis is still collecting unemployment, but Concita found a part-time job at a grocery store. I ask whether they celebrated when they spent their first night in the new apartment. They look at each other. "I think we just collapsed," Curtis says.
"We put air in the mattress and just slept," Concita says. It was a queen-size mattress, and they all slept on it together.
"And for the first two or three weeks, we all still slept in the living room as a family," Curtis says. "No one wanted to go in their rooms. We were so used to being stuck together that we all stayed together. After a while, we started venturing off."
"My son, every now and then, he'll say, 'Mom, can you lay down with me?'" Concita says. "And I'll go in his room until he falls asleep."
For the first month after getting the place, she says, "I didn't want to go anywhere. I didn't want to talk to anybody. I just wanted to be in this house."
"She wouldn't leave," Curtis says.
I am reminded of something Nancy Kapp told me. "Homelessness gets in your bloodstream," she said, "and it stays there forever."
"Self-possession of mind, bro – that's the only way I got through being homeless," the ex-soldier tells me. We're sitting in his brand-new Section 8 apartment, which resembles the Cateses' in its interior spareness and stucco insubstantiality. Until recently, Sean Kennan – he doesn't want his real name used – spent seven months sleeping in a 1971 Winnebago in the parking lot of the First Presbyterian Church. He had his four-year-old son and five-year-old daughter with him. (Out of respect, Kennan tells me, he doesn't want to discuss the children's mother.) He has agreed to show me the short-radius circle in which poverty had confined him while he and his kids were living in the Winnebago. He's wearing a camo field hat and black army fatigues.
"I put this outfit on for you," he says, "because this was how I rolled when I was in the RV. Combat uniform, black boots. Serious. The seriousness of it. I had three sets of these. I looked at it like I was on duty. I was on duty for my kids."
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