Ranks of Homeless Swell as Middle Class Teeters

Published on
by
the San Francisco Chronicle

Ranks of Homeless Swell as Middle Class Teeters

by
Kevin Fagan

Paul Conroy, right, camps out with other homeless people in the shadow of the Marin Center in San Rafael. The sound and stage technician lost his job a year ago and was evicted from his apartment four months ago. (Brant Ward / The Chronicle)

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.

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