SACRAMENTO, CA — In January, I sat among dozens of other reporters in California’s Capitol as we peppered Gov. Gavin Newsom with questions about his spending plan for the year, a bulging $222 billion budget full of progressive proposals: $1.4 billion in new funds for homeless services, expansion of the state’s health insurance for low-income residents, a proposal that the state manufacture generic drugs to bring prices down.
The next day, the Capitol—pearl against a clear blue sky—shrank in the rearview mirror as I navigated towards the I-80 West. I was headed to visit someone whose health and quality of life depend on programs that are created, funded, defunded and tinkered with in that building every year.
The way he tells it, Eduardo Mendoza’s life has been a cycle of good fortune, faith and unexpected favors. After moving from Michoacan, Mexico, he lived in Chicago, Los Angeles, Tucson, the East Bay and Colorado Springs. He worked in a steel mill and as a waiter, a notary clerk, a dog groomer and a package loader for the U.S. Postal Service.
Twenty-four years ago, at the age of 42, Mendoza was diagnosed with AIDS. He stopped working, and friends and family took him in. He learned how to ward off opportunistic infections with a rigorous medication regimen. He helped raise his nephew. He survived.
I first met Mendoza last summer inside a low-income health clinic in Pittsburg, California, an industrial suburb that looks over the northeastern waters of the Bay Area. After his brother moved to Colorado, he was living on his own for the first time since his diagnosis.
Expenses added up quickly. He was spending nearly half of his $1,158.60 monthly social security check on a room he rented from a church friend, but he didn’t feel at home there, especially in the kitchen. His days were long and taxing, starting with a 6:30 a.m. bus ride to the city followed by a coffee at WalMart or McDonalds. After attending Mass at 7:30, he’d kill time for a few hours, often sitting in the lobby of the health clinic. Then he’d head to a nearby soup kitchen to eat lunch, take a bus to the library and, a few hours later, another bus home. For dinner, he often ate Taco Bell.
He wore a baggy sweatshirt and dark sunglasses to hide his gaunt face; he’d lost 15 pounds in the few months he’d been on his own. His interview for his food stamp application was set for three months out.
Yet as Mendoza recounted his story, he ended every few sentences with the words, “I am so lucky.” He revealed the tattoos that neatly line his left forearm: a blue Star of David near his wrist, the word ‘God’ in Arameic, ‘Faith’ in English, and ‘Strong’ in Arabic.
I thought of Mendoza often in the months that followed as I continued reporting on income inequality and economic survival in California. I worried he would become another person to fall through the cracks in a state where more than one-third of the population lives in poverty, or on its edge, due to the sky-high cost of living here and a shortage of affordable housing that is causing more people to live in shelters, cars or curbside each year.
Then, on New Year’s Eve, Mendoza called to tell me that his life has been “changing a lot for good.”
“I thought I might be homeless,” he said over the phone. “I went from darkness to the light… From life to living. Now I have to start living.”
That’s not a story I encounter frequently in my reporting. I wanted to know what made the difference.
As I crossed the Sacramento River into a neighboring county, agricultural sprawl quickly replaced urban. I whizzed past neat rows of bare walnut trees and dormant brown fields. During harvest season, they bear tomatoes, grapes, almonds and rice that will be picked, processed and shipped nationwide, buoying California’s booming economy, which has experienced 10 years of steady job growth, outpacing the rest of the nation.
But the bounty is shared unevenly and inequality is rising each year. For the top 5% of California households, average income grew by 19% from 2006 to 2018, while households in the bottom 20% saw their average income fall as opportunities and wages have stagnated for all but the top-paying jobs.
For an hour and a half, I drove past agricultural lands, strip malls and tracts of tightly packed identical houses, then marsh lands and rolling blue hills punctuated by green refinery stacks puffing white smoke. I didn’t used to take much notice of county lines, but now I do. In California’s extensive albeit fragmented and bureaucratic safety net, county boundaries matter a lot. On this day, I crossed three.
Each of the state’s 58 counties separately administer public benefits like food stamps, Medicare and welfare. Access to food stamps ranges widely from one county to the next, and people often wait in line for years to acquire scarce housing vouchers. I’ve learned that the people who fundamentally understand whether their federal, state, city and county governments function effectively are the ones most regularly seeking services, the ones most in need.
Flanked by cargo ships traversing the bay, I finally crossed a bridge into the small waterfront town of Martinez. I pulled up beside a cream-colored Victorian-style apartment building. Here was what Mendoza described as his “little sanctuary,” an affordable housing facility for seniors with chronic health conditions who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
Mendoza opened the front door, a wide smile edging across his face. His eyes were bright. I was seeing them for the first time. When we first met, he wouldn’t remove his glasses, embarrassed of his frailty. Because of the bounce in his step, I noted the weight he’d gained and the way he moved comfortably in his clothes, a neatly pressed floral shirt, maroon jeans and polished boots. He walked me through quiet halls to a rose and vegetable garden that buzzed with insects, then past a computer lab and an exercise room, and into his apartment.
It was spacious and sunny, with a kitchen, living room and bedroom. Gesturing around the apartment, he chatted about the people—a housing advocate, a specialist at the county housing authority, the in-house social worker—who had given him the items that adorned his apartment, including a sofa, a twin-size bed, two whimsically painted chairs that didn’t match; a table, a toaster, a plant, dishware. In the three weeks he’d been living there, he hadn’t bought anything for himself besides a blender and a bouquet of flowers.
“I’m not material,” he said.
He laid out the timeline of his life’s turn for the better; things were right side up again. In mid-September, Mendoza’s food stamp application was approved for around $60 a month. In early November, on the day before his birthday, he was informed that a unit had become available in this apartment building. Later that month, he was awarded a federal Section 8 voucher to live there, which brings his rent to $217 each month. Days before Christmas, he finally moved in. The first night, he slept on the carpet under a blanket, feeling relieved above all to be in a secure space. His own.
Mendoza keeps his Bible on the carpeted floor under his bedroom window, next to an alarm clock and a laminated drawing of Jesus. Sitting on his twin bed (also a gift), he flipped through its pages to a photo of his mother on her wedding day. Tucked a few pages away is a $20 bill a gardener gave him around the time we met. The man told him to buy an ice cream or maybe a hamburger—to eat something—and Mendoza thought the gardener, who lived in a trailer with five kids and struggled with his own demons, probably needed the money more. The memory pulled tears from Mendoza’s eyes. Someday, he said, he’ll give the bill to someone who really needs it.
From his living room window, Mendoza watches, the comings and goings of boats and trains. He wakes up two hours later than he used to and cooks his own food. His refrigerator is stocked with eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, beans, lemons, strawberries, hot dog buns, a pot of home-cooked tinga poblana and another of chicken broth.
In fewer than 10 minutes, he can walk to everything he needs, including a new library, a new health clinic, a new church and a new soup kitchen, where he eats lunch twice a week. There, people often entrust him with their stories.
Mendoza entrusted me with his. He showed me a new life, one in which his time and space are now his own. He lives with an illness that does not define him. The daily maze of basic survival, which only a few months ago was so exhausting, has vanished. Now, when I interview lawmakers in the Capitol and report on their plans to address poverty in California, I think of him buzzing around his small, bright apartment and its mix of objects. He’s the kind of person that California policymakers classify as ‘vulnerable’ but who is no longer made to feel that way thanks to a few crucial safety nets. Instead, he feels something new.
“One simple word,” he said. “Freedom.”
Jackie Botts covers economic inequality for CalMatters. This dispatch is part of a series called “On the Ground” with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow her on Twitter: @Jackie_Botts.