Bay News Rising

Professional and college reporters training collaboratively for the future of Bay Area journalism. Bay News Rising is a project of the Pacific Media Workers Guild made possible by the labor and contributions of its members.

Surviving poverty in San Francisco: one journalist’s struggle to overcome financial stereotypes

Danielle Parenteau stands in the door frame of her 100-square-foot studio in downtown San Francisco. Photo by Sara Bloomberg/Bay News Rising

Danielle Parenteau stands in the door frame of her 100-square-foot studio in downtown San Francisco. Photo by Sara Bloomberg/Bay News Rising

First Person Profile

by Danielle Parenteau

My mom and I live in a 100-square-foot single-room occupancy hotel in downtown San Francisco. We get by on about $14,000 per year.

There are those in public office who hold that people who live in poverty or receive government aid want a free ride. The truth is much more stark. The ride heads one way: to desperation and dependency, since rules punish initiative and errors can ensnare recipients like my mom and me in Catch-22 dramas that can last for months — in some cases, years. Compounding the problem: recessions that brought job losses in the millions.

At $265 a week, our rent alone costs nearly $14,000 a year, leaving us next to nothing for food, clothing, transportation and textbooks. We pay $64 each month for the storage unit in Anaheim where we left most of our things before moving to San Francisco. Most of our cash flow comes from the financial aid I receive as a student at San Francisco State University, where I am a senior majoring in journalism with a minor in philosophy and religion. I took out student loans to pay our rent.

We also earn a little money through online work we both do and part-time jobs I have held. I found temp work at Macy’s and Fresh & Easy. Together, my mom and I have generated roughly $1,500 answering surveys and doing market research.

“It takes doing a lot to make even a few dollars,” my mom said.

By working online and testing products for a cosmetics research firm, my mom has netted some $400 this year, which she knows is nowhere near enough to live on.

“If I had to support myself on that, it would be impossible,” she said.

We rely on the free — but sporadic — WiFi in our building’s lobby to get work done. If we are in the middle of surveys when the connection goes down, the work usually cannot be saved or restarted. Seats and electrical outlets fill up fast.

Our financial struggles are nothing new. In fact, the problems started before I was born. My mom graduated from El Camino College with an A.A. in sociology and earned a certificate in computer studies from California State University at Long Beach. She worked primarily in accounting and tech. During the Reagan years — the 1980s — she was laid off multiple times as companies she worked for went out of business, relocated or downsized.

She waitressed until she was almost seven months’ pregnant. She eventually applied for social services because she needed health insurance and the money to raise a new baby. She did not receive any aid until after I was born because of mistakes made by social services. I arrived more than two months early. I was born on Sept. 20 and was not released from the hospital until Nov. 1. When I was two, my father died of a heart attack.

We remained on general assistance until I turned 18, but it caused us countless headaches and hardships. My mom went back to school when I was little to study respiratory therapy because she wanted to work to support us but social services forced her to drop out.

“They told me if I didn’t stop going to school, they would cut all of our aid,” my mom said.

She held various jobs during my early childhood. One was working as the financial manager for a chiropractor when I was eight years old, but she was laid off after about a couple months. Then, the Department of Social Services made one of a series of errors.  Mistakenly believing an 11-year-old in the family was bringing in additional and substantial aid, they cut our foodstamps down to $10 per month.

In January 2003, we moved from Torrance to Anaheim and our cash aid dropped to $336 per month because of the 60-month time limit signed into law by President Clinton in 1998. After five years, a family could only get cash benefits for their children. We had been living in Anaheim for a few months when the Orange County welfare office demanded proof of my father’s death. My mom had no way of getting a death certificate but told them everything she knew, including that he had given a blood sample in Riverside County as proof of paternity for child support. Instead of contacting Riverside County or Social Security, a worker immediately slashed our income by 25 percent to $252 a month (a cost-of-living increase upped that to $262 some time later).

Throughout my childhood, errors by Section 8 and DSS caused several more problems, cutting our rent subsidy, nearly getting us thrown out on the street and withholding payment and food stamps for two months around the holidays.

I studied at Cypress College for three years, earning a 3.96 GPA. I joined the Gay/Straight Alliance and was a writer and editor for the Cypress Chronicle, the multimedia student news organization. I applied to transfer to five different universities in California and was accepted to them all. I chose SFSU for the strength of its journalism program, because it made what seemed to be the best financial aid offer at the time and because living in San Francisco was a dream of mine. We moved together to San Francisco, in part, because my mom also wanted to come here and also because we had to be living at the same address in order to continue receiving rental assistance.

We moved here on Greyhound with what little belongings we could cram into a couple suitcases. We arrived early in the morning on Aug. 23, 2012, four days before I started at SFSU, with no idea where we would live or even spend the night. After hours of scouring local papers and the Internet and making phone calls, we went to an SRO on Market Street. We were there for hardly any time at all when cockroaches started pouring out of the walls. We were given a refund and resumed our search. That evening, we found the place we have been living in ever since.

We looked for apartments in The City that accept Section 8 to no avail. We came to San Francisco with the assumption that we would live in a residential motel temporarily while continuing our search.

Aside from the cramped quarters, the SRO we live in presents many problems, including loud neighbors with substance abuse and mental problems and radiators that burn for several hours almost every day regardless the weather.

The city abounds with “these great little markets like Golden Veggie and California Produce where we purchase fresh produce that will last for a few meals for a few dollars at most,” my mom said.

Incredibly resourceful, she nonetheless would like to find work.

“I would be happy just to have [minimum wage],” she said. “It would be so much more than I have now.”

I have always pushed myself in school because I know an education is the most likely way I can pull us out of poverty. At SFSU, my GPA is close to 4.0 and I have worked as a teaching assistant. I want to help break the stereotype that being poor means something is wrong with you.


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This entry was posted on August 23, 2014 by .
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