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Today's Top News
Ranks of Homeless Swell as Middle Class Teeters
Just last year, Paul Conroy was riding high as a sound and stage technician. He lived in tony Marin County and had steady work either rigging shows at San Francisco's Orpheum or Curran theaters or setting up movie shoots for Francis Ford Coppola, Robin Williams and more, all over the Bay Area.
Now the only technical work he does is at the San Rafael library, where Conroy goes each day to check on a half-dozen job-listing Web sites. His Burberry suit and tie are in the trunk of his Honda Accord, alongside his John Riley golf clubs.
He keeps himself well groomed at motel rooms he rents with unemployment checks or the occasional shelter for when that next golden opportunity arises for work. But for now, a year after his last job and four months after he was evicted from his apartment for falling behind on the rent, he is facing the hard truth of rootlessness.
It's an unexpected reality coming in a place like Marin County, where the median household income of $85,892 is the highest in California and the 11th highest in the nation.
Conroy, 54, is one of what many social service providers are calling the newly homeless - people who would never be destitute, without a place to live, if the national economy were not collapsing.
"Usually, with a lot of middle-income families, if you hit hard times, you just move out of the area," said Diane Linn, director of the Ritter Center in San Rafael, one of Marin's emergency aid agencies. "So seeing middle-class people come here - that's big. It tells me things are very bad.
"We would have never seen this in the past."
Conroy is just the tip of the iceberg, experts say. Come next year, there will be a lot more like him on the streets of Bay Area communities. And with social services everywhere bursting at the seams, experts and program managers expect to be overwhelmed.
And if it's getting bad in a seemingly bulletproof enclave like Marin, you can bet it will be very bad everywhere else. Marin's homeless count has been steady for several years, at about 1,300, but many homeless services are now seeing spikes of 25 to 50 percent in help requests.
Struggling to avoid shelters
"I guess you could say guys like me, we're like the canary in the coal mine," Conroy said one recent day as he walked from the St. Vincent de Paul's free dining hall in San Rafael to the library for his daily job search. "I never thought in a million years I would be sleeping in a shelter, but there you are. And here I am."
Homelessness across the entire nation is soaring, and experts say most of that growth is among people like Conroy - middle- to lower-middle-income workers - or families. But here's the tricky thing: They aren't all showing up in shelters yet.
There's a long ladder of resources they first have to tumble down before they hit bottom like Conroy. Right now, experts say, the newly homeless are mostly invisible - living with relatives and tapping friends and unemployment checks to avoid the shelters.
Joblessness, foreclosures up
But given the ailing economy that saw a record 5.7 million Americans collecting unemployment last week, there will soon be thousands of new faces in the cots.
Marin's job and foreclosure rates alone tell of the coming storm.
The county's unemployment rate leaped to 6.8 percent in February, up from 5.4 percent in December, according to the most recent figures at the state Employment Development Department. That's still the lowest of any county in California, and far below the state's overall jobless rate of 10.5 percent. But it's not expected to go down soon.
Home foreclosures in Marin County soared 231 percent from 2007 to 2008, and have shown no sign of slowing this year, according to MDA DataQuick.
"It's 'Junior League' homelessness," said Philip Mangano, who, as head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, is President Obama's point man on the subject. "You can't have the number of foreclosures we've had, and the number of job losses we've had, and not have the homeless numbers go up. Everywhere I go, I hear of more need - and it's growing."
Mangano noted that most places - such as Marin, Contra Costa County and San Francisco - have not seen a swelling in the numbers of the chronically homeless, those most-troubled folks who've been on the street at least a year and often suffer from addiction or mental problems.
Instead, it's families that are suffering the most, he said. The national Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported in January that the number of homeless families seeking shelter is believed to have shot up in double digits in most major cities - official counts will be taken later this year - and it predicts that 1.1 million more families will fall far enough below the poverty line during the current economic crisis to be at high risk of homelessness.
Many estimates place the total number of homeless people in the United States at about 3 million, so an influx of families of two to three members could potentially double the ranks.
And that's not counting the for-now "invisible" people, like Conroy was until recently. Or Lars Finke, a 40-year-old salesman who was laid off from his job selling mattresses in Eureka in October.
Toll on social services
Finke came back home to Marin to stay with family and look for work after his layoff. Nothing cropped up. Finally, tired of leaning on relatives, he moved into the New Beginnings transitional housing complex in Novato a month ago and enrolled in a job training program.
"Sales is obviously a terrible field right now, but maybe there's something in trucking," he said. "I've seen down times before, but nothing like this. Ever."
It's so bad, in fact, that Marin County's services have been overrun in the past year. The Marin Family Action Center, a main referral service for homeless families, shut this winter, and daily requests for help have doubled to about 20 at the Homeless Help Desk at St. Vincent de Paul's in San Rafael.
"At least once a day, we have to give someone a $4.35 ticket to go by bus to the COTS (Committee on the Shelterless) in Petaluma because we've just run out of anything we can give them here," said Patti Breitman, a volunteer at the desk. "It's heartbreaking."
The well-regarded COTS program is absorbing any spillover for now, said Executive Director John Records. But he sees trouble ahead.
"There's never enough," he said. "We are going to see more and more homeless in this economic climate. And these are not going to be people with mental or drug problems. They're just people who've fallen on hard times."
Conroy hit the bricks now because he's in an industry that was among the first to hurt as the economy tanked - theater, conventions and films. Other industries, from retail to white-collar management, took longer to start imploding, but with the closure of Mervyns and other chains, and the loss of at least 500,000 jobs nationwide every time a new federal accounting comes out, the wave is now in full force.
"A majority in the shelter look like they've been doing this a long time," Conroy said the other day as he got into line for a night in Marin County's temporary winter shelter for men. (The shelter closed Wednesday when funding shortages prevented community leaders from keeping it open longer than spring, despite a "sleep-in" protest by homeless advocates at the county civic center.) "But there are others like me. We kind of look at each other and shake our heads."
Added burden for families
Penniless life is even harder to hold together for families than it is for singles.
Take Phillip Scardino, Sharina Grimes and their three young children, for instance.
They moved to the North Bay from Mississippi last fall so Scardino could take a well-paying construction job - but within a month, the project was canceled. He hunted for work all over Marin and Sonoma counties, and in mid-February the family wound up in the COTS family shelter.
"I've worked good oil rig or construction jobs all my life, and I've never been like this," said Scardino, 38, scuffing his shoe in the grass as he waited for the two older kids to come home on the elementary school bus. "We're going back to Mississippi as soon as we can get the bus fare together.
"This may be the Golden State, and these counties rich and all, but right now it's anything but golden for us."
Slide show: For more photos of how stage and sound technician Paul Conroy is coping with the unexpected reality of homelessness, go to sfgate.com.