3 kids. 2 paychecks. No home.
South of San Francisco, in a fertile corner of California that feeds much of the country, working families are sleeping in shelters and parking lots.
Frankie’s morning started before the sun came up, as the steadily increasing volume of his parents’ phone alarm, coming from somewhere near the dashboard, jolted the 8-year-old awake. His dad, Candido, and 6-year-old brother, Josephat, had begun to stir in the cramped rear of the minivan, emerging from a tangle of blankets, towels, pillows, and stuffed animals. His mom, Brenda, was in the driver’s seat, which was reclined as far back as it could go; his baby sister, Adelene, who was 3, was splayed out awkwardly on the seat beside her. As for Frankie, he was in his usual spot: nestled on the floorboard between the front seats and middle row, his skinny 4-foot frame hidden in a furry green-and-brown sleeping bag meant to look like a grizzly bear.
For almost nine months, the family had been living out of their Toyota Sienna in various fields and parking lots throughout Salinas, the industrial and economic center of Monterey County. In this part of the country, there was nothing especially dramatic or exceptional about their plight, or the circumstances that led them to be without a roof over their heads. Frankie’s parents were well aware of the worsening housing crisis that had dragged tens of thousands of Californians into a similar fate. But still, Candido said, it sometimes felt as though they were the only ones out there.
Finding a place to park the van was harder than expected. At first, the family tried the parking lot of a Food 4 Less grocery store. But the following morning, an employee warned them not to return; a neighborhood gang, he explained, controlled the area and had been threatening homeless people. He said they’d recently slashed someone’s tires. The family drove to a nearby strawberry farm, which proved more hospitable. In exchange for doing chores around the property, such as cleaning the bathrooms and emptying the trash, the farm’s owner would fill up their gas tank. But eventually other families, in their own cars and SUVs, began showing up, and it became too much. They’d have to go somewhere else, the owner said.
Now they were in the parking lot of Natividad Medical Center, just outside the emergency room. The lot was well lit, and there were bathrooms in the ER waiting room, open 24 hours. The hospital staff was mostly welcoming. At night, however, after everyone fell asleep, Candido had been noticing the tiny flicker of a lighter in a nearby pickup truck and the profile of an older man. Candido kept the van’s dome light on and made sure its doors were locked.
As parents, Candido and Brenda believed the most important thing was to project confidence; their kids needed to see that they had a plan. The couple tried to avoid worrying about how long they’d be in the van, or where they might go next, but it was impossible to think about anything else. There were bouts of cursing and storming off and feeling that one more minute in the vehicle, packed with the entirety of their possessions, would drive them all insane. There were weekend excursions to Target for little toys and treats, bought with money they couldn’t spare. When temperatures dropped, it was a terrible calculus: bundle up as best they could, the kids shivering and complaining, or run the van’s heat all night and use up precious gas. Or, if there were any rooms available, they could spend up to a couple hundred dollars a night at the Best 5 Motel or Good Nite Inn — making it that much less likely that they’d save enough to get out of the van entirely.
Mornings were the hardest. Everyone was achy, tired from a bad night’s sleep, and on this morning, too, it was all they could do to keep to their routine. Brenda and Candido insisted on maintaining a semblance of order. “We’re not like some people,” Candido would tell the kids. “We wash our clothes. We don’t pee outside. We keep ourselves clean.” In the hospital bathroom, while Candido got ready to go to work and Brenda stayed behind with Adelene, Frankie helped wash and dress Josephat, brushing his brother’s teeth, then his own. Breakfast was whatever Pop-Tarts or granola bars were left over from the food bank. Finally, they straightened up the van, pulled the seats back into position, and put on their seat belts, Adelene in her car seat, Frankie and Josephat in their boosters. They drove the 15 or so minutes into town, fusing with the early traffic, indistinguishable from all the other families starting their day.
When the van stopped, the boys hopped out. They went around to the trunk, grabbed their backpacks off the built-in clothing hooks, hugged their parents, and walked through the front gate of their elementary school.
Traveling the length of Highway 68, a 20-mile road running from Asilomar State Beach in Pacific Grove to South Main Street in downtown Salinas, is like going from one version of California to another. On the Monterey Peninsula side of the “lettuce curtain” (as the invisible barrier separating Salinas from richer neighboring towns is often called) are exclusive beach communities, famous golf courses such as Pebble Beach, and a thriving tourism industry; on the opposite end of the highway, a working-class city with a poverty rate well above the state average.
Not that the Salinas Valley is lacking in beauty or natural resources. Long ago declared the “salad bowl of the world,” the area’s vast farms produce roughly two-thirds of the country’s lettuce and much of our celery, cauliflower, wine grapes, broccoli, and strawberries. Its $8 billion agricultural economy, driven by corporate giants such as Dole, Taylor Farms, Driscoll’s, Tanimura & Antle, and Earthbound Farm, has made the valley a place of immense wealth. But it’s also a place where battles over the distribution of this wealth have been fought for generations. In 1936, John Steinbeck, who was born in Salinas, noted in his nonfiction work The Harvest Gypsies the “curious attitude toward a group that makes our agriculture successful. The migrants are needed, and they are hated.” Nearly four decades later, in the summer of 1970, César Chávez and his United Farm Workers helped organize a massive strike against the valley’s growers, which effectively shut down the lettuce industry. Previously, no safety, health, or labor laws protected these workers, and they could be fired at will; now the farms — what Chávez proudly referred to as “liberated ranches” — were forced to provide better pay and working conditions for the men and women in their fields.
Today, the region’s 91,000 farmworkers live with stagnant wages (the median pay for farmworkers is $12.79 per hour) and the constant threat of ICE (the majority of these laborers are undocumented). Public health officials describe an epidemic of malnutrition among the workers and their families, and hunger has become widespread. The perverse irony that “The Valley That Feeds the Nation,” the title of a colorful mural in nearby Soledad, is now struggling to feed itself has been lost on nobody. Activists argue that a lack of fair wages in agriculture, in particular, is a key driver of this food insecurity. But for now, charity is what the industry is willing to offer. Last year, at the Food Bank of Monterey County, much of the 12 million pounds of emergency food assistance it provided was donated by agricultural companies.
By far the greatest difficulty facing Salinas families, though, is the disappearance of affordable rental housing. In recent years, tech workers from the Bay Area have been relocating to Monterey County, and there are currently plans for a commuter rail that would run from the heart of Silicon Valley to Salinas. This influx of higher-earning tenants into an already congested market has led to a rise in rents, which in turn — together with the exclusionary zoning, no-fault evictions, and barriers to new construction that have beleaguered the rest of the state — is creating unprecedented housing instability among Salinas’s working poor. Over the past eight years, there has been a 37 percent loss of low-rent units in the city, while rents have shot up by almost 60 percent since 2014 — roughly four times the national average. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the “housing wage” necessary to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment in Salinas, whose costs now exceed those of Miami and Chicago, is $29.62 per hour.
Increasingly, the city’s residents have found themselves bereft of adequate shelter altogether. “There’s always been poverty here,” said Reyes Bonilla, who runs Community Homeless Solutions, a local nonprofit. “But homelessness on this scale? It’s an entirely new thing.” He added that many of those coming to his organization for support defy the stereotypes about homelessness: The vast majority of them are working and have simply been priced out of a place to live. Families are doubling and tripling up in overcrowded, substandard conditions; they’re resorting to garages and toolsheds, cars and abandoned properties. In Monterey County, approximately 8,000 schoolchildren were homeless last year, more than San Francisco and San Jose combined. For many of these kids, the safest, most dependable part of their lives is the school they attend.
When Brenda and Candido first got together, in 2014, they were still under the impression that if they worked hard enough, they would be able to provide for their family. They met at a slaughterhouse in Dodge City, Kansas. Brenda, who was born in Belize, moved to Kansas with her family as an infant. Candido ended up there when his mom, fearful that her teenage son could be killed by rival gang members in Salinas after being shot at several times, sent him to stay with relatives in the Midwest. “I was in a really bad place back then,” said Candido. By the time their paths crossed at the National Beef processing plant — he was a “chuck boner”; she was assigned to the packaging unit — Candido had become a committed Christian and was ready for a relationship. Brenda, for her part, had two young boys, was reeling from a painful breakup, had grown estranged from her parents, and believed that the surest route to a better future lay in joining the Marines. Gradually, Candido managed to convince her otherwise. “I saw how much he adored Frankie and Josephat,” Brenda said. “I could tell he was very serious about being with us.” Soon Candido was referring to the boys as his adopted sons, and, as it became clear that there was little left for them in Kansas, they agreed that going to California was their best option.
In the fall of 2016, the four of them moved into a small apartment in north Salinas, a safe neighborhood by the city’s standards (at the time, Salinas had one of the highest murder rates in the U.S.). Candido and Brenda, joking that they were destined to work together for the rest of their lives, landed jobs in the frozen-burrito factory at Sweet Earth Foods, a local vegan and vegetarian company, and were thrilled to be pulling in $15.25 per hour before taxes — more than they could have hoped to make in Dodge City. Yet rent and utilities alone were swallowing up over half their income. When Adelene was born, and Brenda stopped working for a brief season to stay home with her, they realized that their financial footing was less secure than it had seemed. So they were grateful to accept an offer from Candido’s mom to come stay with her. She had extra space, the location was more convenient, and, crucially, they would have help with child care.
There was one catch. Owned and operated by the Housing Authority of the County of Monterey, the complex had strict rules governing who could reside in its units — and since the apartment was in Candido’s mother’s name, her children and grandchildren were barred from living there. The building’s sympathetic manager, however, assured them that it would be fine; with a yearslong waiting list to even enter the lottery for these subsidized rentals, they certainly weren’t the only ones, he said, who’d be living “off-lease.” Everything went well for about a year. But then a neighbor threatened to report the family. She’d started photographing the kids as they left and reentered the apartment each day, and the manager had no choice but to tell them to go elsewhere. “We were totally scared and shocked,” Brenda said, “and we knew that we needed to get out right away. If not, Candido’s mom might have been evicted, too.”
The timing couldn’t have been worse. Temporarily relieved of the heavy burden of rent, Candido and Brenda, who was now working again, felt that their most pressing need was a car; since arriving in Salinas, they had been dependent on friends and relatives and city buses for transportation. By December of last year, they finally had enough money to purchase a 2007 minivan for $5,000 — which also meant that, less than a month later, when they were forced to move, nearly all of their savings had been depleted. It would take a few months, maybe more, before they could afford the security deposit and first month’s rent for an apartment.
Panicked, they went to the only place they could think of: a downtown homeless shelter. Originally intended as an emergency warming center during the winter months, the shelter — a 70-person-capacity building that used to be a public defender’s office — had become a year-round fixture for Salinas’s growing homeless population. There were no showers, and everyone had to leave in the morning and line up again in the early evening, but there were hot meals, volunteer tutors to help with homework, and it offered protection from the Central Coast’s frigid winter weather. An incident a few hours after they arrived, however, prevented them from staying at the shelter. Josephat, who has a developmental delay, was trying to get another boy his age to play with him; when that boy turned away, Josephat grabbed him by the hood of his sweatshirt and caused him to slip, smacking his head against the floor. The boy’s parents were furious, and Candido and Brenda were asked to leave. The family slept outside in their new van.
Soon they were confronted with an alarming fact: There was one facility in the city where homeless families could find short-term relief, and they had just been kicked out of it. “It was awful,” Candido said. “The van’s tiny enclosed space was very hard for the kids. But it hit us that there was nowhere else to go.” The following days saw them exhaust every other option at their disposal. They tried camping at the beach. “Think of it as an adventure,” they told the kids. But without a tent, they were freezing and miserable. They went into debt, borrowing what little money friends and family members could lend them — a hundred dollars here, two hundred there. Candido’s sister, who lived in the same Housing Authority complex as their mom, wanted to offer her apartment to them, but they decided it was too risky. Even motel vacancies were hard to come by: Local farms had started reserving whole blocks of rooms for their seasonal workers, driving up rates and, on many nights, filling up the motels.
As weeks turned into months, their situation became a case study in the cascading effects of homelessness. The stress of living in the van was compounded by their need to find a secure place to sleep and remain hidden from the authorities. Unlike some California cities where “safe parking lots” had been established for their unhoused and displaced residents, Salinas had nothing of the sort. In fact, it was illegal to sleep in a vehicle on public land.
Meanwhile, Josephat’s behavior was worsening; he was more aggressive, more likely to lash out physically. This put everyone on edge, especially Brenda. From the time she was a teenager, she had been afflicted with severe panic attacks. Lately, the episodes were happening with greater frequency, and she was becoming withdrawn. Fearing that her anxiety was being triggered, in part, by the trouble Josephat was getting into, Candido requested that the school call him, not Brenda, if there were any problems. Before long, he was receiving two or three calls a week, asking him to pick up Josephat right away: His son had thrown his food tray in the cafeteria, or refused to sit down in class, or punched a teacher. Candido’s manager at work grew exasperated by these abrupt departures. “He told me I should take some time to deal with my family issues,” Candido said. He collected his final paycheck a few days later.
While the kids were at school one afternoon, Candido and Brenda went to Dorothy’s Place, a Catholic nonprofit based in Chinatown, Salinas’s de facto skid row. With its block-long homeless encampments and open-air drug and prostitution market, the area seemed isolated and abandoned, designed to keep out any but the most desperate among the city’s poor. For the couple, venturing there was a tacit admission that what they’d been going through could no longer be considered a brief setback. But it was immediately apparent that the services offered at Dorothy’s Place were geared toward the single adults populating the streets outside the charity, not parents with kids. A case manager recommended that they try the Family Resource Center at Sherwood Elementary.
Founded in 2006, in the months leading up to the Great Recession, the resource center was the Salinas City Elementary School District’s response to the growing problem of student homelessness. Up to that point, the support available to homeless children and their families more or less consisted of Cheryl Camany, a teacher moonlighting part time as the district’s “homeless liaison,” arranging the occasional shopping excursion to a discount department store. But suddenly Camany, who grew up in Salinas — her mom taught at Alisal High School, and her father owned a small grocery store called Camany’s Market — was getting more requests for help. So she went around raising money from churches and businesses and persuaded the district’s higher-ups to turn her liaison job into a full-time position.
At the same time, she began coordinating an effort to count the number of homeless students in each of the district’s 14 schools; in order to be helped, these children first needed to be identified. That year, 261 students were discovered to be experiencing homelessness — a shocking figure, Camany thought. By 2012–2013, the number was 2,042, and in every subsequent year, it kept going higher. (Under the McKinney-Vento Act, every school district in the country is required to count and provide assistance to homeless students, but compliance is often spotty. In February, California lawmakers announced a statewide audit to investigate why over 400 school districts had failed to identify even a single homeless student.)
Brenda and Candido were nervous when they arrived at the Family Resource Center, which now occupied an entire building on Sherwood’s campus and was run by four full-time staff members — Camany and three other women, all bilingual. “There was a lot of shame about our situation,” Candido said. “We were always telling the kids, ‘Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t feel bad.’ But I guess we didn’t follow our own advice. It seemed like we’d failed.” Overcoming this stigma around the “H word,” as Camany calls it, was an endless struggle at the resource center; there were many factors that kept families from seeking assistance — fear of referral to Child Protective Services, or, in a place like Salinas, the undocumented status of some parents — but the humiliation of being homeless was perhaps the biggest one. “Sometimes the most therapeutic moment for the families we work with,” Camany told me, “is when they realize how many others there are just like them.”
Gradually, as Candido and Brenda started to feel more comfortable, the resource center became their lifeline. Camany and her colleagues wore many hats — social worker, therapist, financial adviser, surrogate mother. And the material assistance they provided was no less vital: The family was able to walk through a large adjacent room full of clothing, toiletries, backpacks, school supplies, sneakers, and bed linens, selecting anything they needed. They were given shower vouchers to use at a truck stop and gift cards for Safeway and McDonald’s. The boys were enrolled in a free lunch and breakfast program, called Second Opportunity meals, and they began the process of setting up an IEP (Individualized Education Program) for Josephat. A whole array of extracurricular activities, from the Youth Orchestra of Salinas to a nearby ranch where kids could learn to ride horses, was made available by partner organizations. They met people like themselves, parents who simply couldn’t afford to keep their children housed. In the absence of this support, most of these families would have been left without a safety net of any kind, invisible to the system tasked with aiding them.
In late August, Camany handed me the weekend edition of Salinas’s newspaper, The Californian. She pointed to the headline — “Homeless Population Declines 15%.” Then, shaking her head, she read aloud the finding that, according to the latest HUD-mandated Point-in-Time census, there were a mere 150 homeless families in the whole of Monterey County. (By contrast, according to the school data, there were 3,566 elementary-age homeless students in Salinas last year, or 40 percent of the total student population.) As Camany observed, however, that low figure relied on a narrow — and, advocates argue, misleading — definition of homelessness used by HUD, which counts only those living on the streets or in shelters as “literally homeless.” The Department of Education, on the other hand, widens the definition to include those living in cars, motels, or doubled up with others, and accounts for the many reasons families might avoid a shelter or lack access to one. Yet it’s HUD’s definition that determines the allocation of crucial housing assistance. “It’s a crazy logic,” Barbara Duffield, the director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national youth-homelessness organization, told me. “It basically goes: We don’t see homeless families, so we don’t have any here, therefore we don’t have to help them.”
One by one, these families appeared at the front door of the resource center, or called Camany on her ancient flip phone, or got sent her way by what she half-jokingly refers to as her network of “eyes and ears” — everyone from bus drivers to cafeteria workers. There was the young mom terrified of losing her 8-year-old son to the foster system because of persistent truancy; Camany promised to accompany her to the mediation session with the judge. There was the woman who arrived with a baby in her arms, sobbing uncontrollably. Diana Morales and Liliana Gil-Ramirez, two staff members, rushed to her side and stood embracing her for several minutes, whispering in Spanish; it turned out her husband, the family’s breadwinner, had been arrested by ICE and was awaiting deportation.
Camany’s ability to call attention to the scale and consequences of student homelessness had recently been paying off, and the mandate taken up by the resource center was being embraced by others: pastors and city leaders, school administrators and teachers. “There’s so much injustice outside these walls,” said Maria Castellanoz, a third-grade teacher, “but in my classroom, I make sure every student is treated with the dignity they deserve.” Over time, she had come to recognize the signs of homelessness among her students without them having to say anything. When she spotted a kid hoarding snacks underneath his jacket, she brought him extra food the next day. When students nodded off in class, she let them sleep, tutoring them later so they wouldn’t fall behind. All this had altered her understanding of what teaching should look like and what a school was for.
But there’s only so much a school can offer. It can’t give families apartments, or money, or jobs that pay a housing wage. It can’t pass stronger tenant-protection laws or prevent exploitation by unscrupulous landlords. Oscar Ramos, who heads the elementary teachers union, told me that he feared the long-term effects of such widespread volatility — that this “toxic stress,” as pediatricians have termed it, would leave its mark on the physical and emotional health of his students well into the future. “The more I learn about what these kids are carrying,” Ramos said, “the more overwhelmed I get.”
On my last night in Salinas, I met Candido, Brenda, and the kids for dinner at Mountain Mike’s Pizza on East Alisal Street. Unexpectedly, it would be something of a celebratory meal. Earlier that day, they’d received word that their application to rent a nearby house had been accepted. The Central Coast Center for Independent Living, a nonprofit focused on people with disabilities, had begun working with Brenda and determined that her increasingly debilitating condition made her eligible for rent assistance. The organization would be covering their security deposit, first month’s rent, and a portion of the family’s monthly rent of $2,600. Candido had also landed a new job cleaning recycling bins for the city, and he was now employed part time as a custodian with the school district as well.
The kids were ecstatic as they jumped out of the minivan, yelling, “We got a house! We got a house!” Frankie and Josephat had been studying pictures of the two-bedroom house on Brenda’s phone. They zoomed in on the room they’d be sharing, imagining where their bunk bed and toys would go. Their parents were beaming, too. “I told them not to get their hopes up,” Candido said. “But yeah, we’re pretty excited.”
When the extra-large supreme pizza, the restaurant’s “mountain” size, arrived at our table, the family looked at it tentatively, as if it could disappear. The past couple of days had been rough, Brenda said, nibbling at her salad. They couldn’t spare the gas needed to drive to the mobile food bank, located outside of town, so keeping themselves fed had been a challenge. After rationing throughout the week, all that remained at dinnertime the night before were four pieces of stale wheat bread and a can of Spam. Candido and Brenda told the kids they weren’t hungry and had them split the two sandwiches three ways. There had been lots of nights like that.
Frankie and Josephat inhaled their pizza and rushed off to a small cluster of arcade games, trailed by their sister. We watched as Frankie gingerly lifted his brother onto a bar stool so that he could reach the buttons; he stood behind Josephat, his hands poised near his younger brother’s waist to keep him from falling. “That’s Frankie,” Candido said with a smile.
He went on to describe how advanced Frankie had been even at 3 or 4: tying his own shoes, taking showers, reading books. Over the past two years, as Josephat’s developmental delay grew more pronounced — “You can tell on his face that he’s trying to communicate,” Candido said, “but people don’t understand him, and that’s when he explodes in anger” — Frankie had been going out of his way to look after him. When Josephat’s classmates started making fun of him, Frankie went to the boy’s classroom every day to check on him; during recess, he would find his brother to make sure he wasn’t sitting alone. Candido began to cry as he related this. “My son, he’s 8 years old,” Candido said. “But he sees how stressed we are, how we’re just trying to survive, and he puts that on himself. It’s too much for a kid his age.”
After dinner, I followed the family back to the parking lot where they’d been staying. The route took us along wide thoroughfares where a Denny’s or an old auto shop would suddenly give way to brief stretches of farmland. To our left, the sunset made the shooting sprinkler water at a small broccoli field turn an iridescent orange.
It was almost dark when we pulled into a municipal parking lot filled with row after row of white Ford Explorers. A security guard had told the family that they could no longer stay on hospital property, but he pointed them to an adjacent city lot overlooking the medical center. They now had to walk ten or 15 minutes to use the ER bathroom, which was especially onerous when the kids were sick. Candido described a recent sleepless night of carrying Adelene, who had diarrhea, back and forth between the van and the hospital.
The children were already in their pajamas. In the back of the van, Josephat had gone into what his parents said was his usual falling-asleep position: facedown, butt in the air, moaning softly, rocking back and forth. Adelene was in the front passenger seat, peeking out shyly between the seat and the raised headrest and clutching “Addy,” a giant stuffed cat named after her. Frankie was in his grizzly bear sleeping bag, sitting up and facing Brenda, Candido, and me as we stood talking beside the van’s open door. Earlier, at the restaurant, Brenda told me that at first Frankie had been claustrophobic in the van, but the sleeping bag, a present from his parents, put him at ease.
Unprompted, Frankie began telling us about a dream he’d had recently. It was the last day of school, and the teachers were letting the kids goof around in the hallways. Frankie and his friends were playing their favorite game, where some pretended to be zombies and the others, the zombie hunters, chased them with Nerf Blasters. “It was so much fun,” he said drowsily. “There were special snacks, and we even got to watch a movie.”
His mom asked him what it was like to wake up in the van.
“It felt really weird,” he said.