By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Joanie's building is remarkably pleasant, designed in the faux-Spanish style popular in the 1940s and recently refurbished with lots of fresh paint, new easy-to-open windows and a wrought-iron gate around a small courtyard where residents may barbecue. Her own tiny second-floor apartment is a 10-by-12 single room, plus a kitchen and bathroom. The furniture is sparse yet neatly maintained, consisting of a bed covered with a frequently washed mauve floral comforter, a rose-colored plush easy chair she found for $10 at a local thrift store and carried home in a grocery cart, and a scarred side table that holds the white TrimLine phone she bought at a swap meet. She has rescued and brought back to life several orphaned houseplants, and their lush health gives the apartment a hopeful atmosphere. "Next to the birth of my babies," she says, "when I got my own place was the happiest day of my life."
Joanie strategizes aloud as to how she will keep this apartment if November rolls around and she is still jobless. "I can collect bottles and cans, and I sew real good, so I can do some alterations for people," she says. "But that'd only give me enough to buy food and stuff. It won't be enough for my rent or my phone." She would use her skills to make and save extra money now, she says, "But if the GR workers found out, I'd lose my benefits, because that's against the rules."
The requirements for GR are simple and rigid: You can't have more than $50 in cash or savings, which includes such minor assets as burial insurance. You may own one car, as long as it's not worth more than $4,500. And you're allowed to have basic furniture and the tools of your trade. After you've qualified, you may acquire up to $200 per month of "earned income" without losing benefits. Gifts of any size are deducted, dollar for dollar, from your check.
According to Joanie, most GR recipients earn some money here and there in order to get by. "But they usually don't report even a penny of it, because a lot of times you'll think it's earned income but then your GR worker will have a reason why they'll disallow it." Joanie narrows her eyes. "If I get any kind of extra money, I don't tell nobody. I mean, nobody."
Margaret Quinn, General Relief Program manager for Los Angeles County, has heard the complaints, and acknowledges occasional problems. But, she says, "Department heads don't have the latitude to make individual exceptions." Welfare advocates feel the system's inability to be responsive to those it serves is precisely its problem. "There is so much about General Relief which is well-intentioned in theory," says Estela Alferez, program coordinator for L.A. Family Housing Homeless Service Center in Boyle Heights, "but in practice, it's often completely irrational."
JOANIE PUSHES A GROCERY CART THE MILE DISTANCE between her place and a Jons market located on Santa Monica Boulevard near Western Avenue. "This here cart is my car," she says, grinning. "It don't require no high-priced gas or oil changes, and it never gets a flat tire." At the market, Joanie shops for the full month. She buys meat first, $2.81 for the family pack of boneless beef chuck steak. "I make beef burritos with this," she says. "I chop it up real fine, then put in seasoning." When she spots stew meat next to the chuck, she considers it a moment, then puts it back. "Too expensive," she says and reaches for a package of ground beef instead, $4.81 for 4 pounds. She pays $1.99 for 5 pounds of sugar, $1.99 for 2 ounces of pepper. She also buys eight cans of tomato sauce at 79 cents a can, 4 pounds of fresh cabbage for 99 cents and so on, until her cart is nearly full. Her big purchase is strawberries, $4.99 for a flat. "But they're healthy, and won't one of these berries go to waste."
At the register, she cautions the checker not to go over $125 -- the amount she has in food stamps -- and positions the flat of strawberries last on the conveyer belt, just in case. The precaution is unnecessary. The total is $91.46, and Joanie is exultant. "This was a good shopping day," she says. "I got everything I need plus strawberries -- with $33 in stamps to put back in the kitty."
On the walk back home, Joanie muses about her various plans to get a job by cutoff time. "I'm not going to be caught without a backup," she says. "For example, I've signed up with an agency where you get paid by the hour to take care of sick people in their homes. Of course, for that kind of work, they want you to have a car. But I've heard they'll give you cab vouchers if you don't have one. I'd like to do housekeeping work in a hospital like I did at Martin Luther King. But this year I've applied at 21 hospitals without any luck. I think it's because of my age. It's against the law for them to say so, but that's got to be it."
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city