For six months in 2009, Dan O’Brien recalls living like a mole in a dark hole at the Villa Fairmont Hospital in San Leandro. He woke up in the morning in a dark room, so quiet that it seemed almost “eerie,” he said. He went to a dining hall and filled his stomach with meals he described as “better than jail meals” — although he has never been to jail — and went straight back to his green-walled room. He said he hardly recognized anything in those days; his mind was empty and he felt he had no reason to be alive. He had been hospitalized since September, 2008, after attempting suicide for the second time by swallowing 160 over-the-counter sleeping pills.
At the hospital, he barely spoke with anyone, never attended any groups — all he did was read, he said. “I probably read all the books that were in the library. It took my mind off of other things,” said O’Brien, who is now 42 years old. The window curtain was always shut because he wanted to shut himself off from the rest of the world, he said.
O’Brien, a clean-cut former carpenter, had experienced happier times during the early 2000s, when he said he was making $4,800 a week remodeling houses. “I used to go to shopping every Friday, spending $100 on clothes at a discount store,” O’Brien said. He said things started to fall apart in 2004, when the monthly mortgage payment for the house he bought in Livermore in 1998 almost tripled to $4,200. The stress led to constant arguments with his wife, he said. He ultimately lost everything he loved — his wife and his house. But, said O’Brien, “Nobody knew I was suffering, because I put on my happy face.”
Depressed, he said, he tried to end his life by overdosing on sleeping drugs, and his depression became ever more severe after his first suicide attempt. Failed relationships and losing his father in a car accident in 2008 were so painful that he started taking methamphetamine to numb his feelings, he said. By 2007 he was homeless. He felt no need for an address because he was, as he put it, “not sure if I was going to be alive in the future.”
Unbeknownst to O’Brien, at just about the same time another Bay Area man was engaging in a similar struggle with drugs, job loss and depression. William Sykes Jr. is a shy and gentle man with neatly trimmed sideburns, a beard and a tiger tattoo on his upper left arm. As a son of an African-American soldier stationed in Sendai, Japan, and a Japanese mother, he came to Berkeley when he was 4 years old. “I couldn’t speak any English. It was really hard to make friends. The first friend I made here was a girl, and everybody made fun of me for that,” said the 49-year-old former carpenter.
He soon learned how to fit in by taking and sharing drugs, he said. In high school he started using marijuana, mushrooms, and acid, he said. In his mid-twenties, he said, he started using cocaine, and in his thirties, he turned to meth. He spent all his money he earned from construction work to buy drinks and drugs for his friends, because “people stayed with me and I didn’t feel lonely while I was buying stuff for those people,” Sykes said.
He tried to stop his drug habits when his ex-wife told him that he would not be allowed to see his beloved son unless he gave them up, but Sykes said he failed to get clean many times. “It’s like revolving door,” he said. “Every time I tried, things happen.” He finally quit in November 2007. “I got tired of it. I got tired of driving at 3 a.m. just to get drugs,” he said. Since then, he has been completely sober.
But he had a harder time turning the rest of his life around. Eight years ago, the house he was renting in Pinole burnt down because of a spark from an old wire, he said, and then two years later, he said he was not paid for the building management job he did in San Ramon because the agency through which he got the management job wrote bad checks. He hurt his back after that, he said, and was not able to work in construction or find a stable job. He started hopping between odd jobs. When the recession hit in 2009, he was laid off from a job at a body shop in Sacramento.
Then on Memorial Day in 2009, Sykes said, his red 1999 Mercedes’ engine blew up when he was driving from Sacramento, where he lived at his sister’s house, to see his estranged son. By this point jobless, penniless and homeless, he slept in Berkeley’s Aquatic Park for a couple of days. He said he found himself walking on the railroad tracks wishing to be hit by a train. “I felt ‘Why are these things happening to me over and over again?’” said Sykes. “I felt there was no hope.”
Today, Sykes and O’Brien are two of the thousands of people in Alameda County who are dependent on General Assistance, or GA, a county-funded safety net cash program provided to indigent adults without dependent children who have little or no savings and no source of income. The goal of providing GA funds is to give people temporary assistance to help cover the most basic necessities of life — food and housing. Currently around 10,000 people are enrolled in Alameda County, where they get a maximum of $336 a month and are also eligible for food stamps. The General Assistance fund is technically a loan, so recipients are obliged to pay the money back once they are able to work or become eligible for Social Security income. In the past, GA recipients have been able to collect checks for one year.
These two men share a sun-lit two-bedroom apartment at the Rosa Parks House in downtown Oakland, provided by BOSS, or Building Opportunity for Self-Sufficiency, a non-profit organization that provides shelter and transitional housing, counseling, and job referrals for homeless people so that they can return to independent life. O’Brien and Sykes each pay about $100 a month in rent out of the approximately $300 that they get from Alameda County’s GA fund. O’Brien and Sykes feel that they rely on GA and BOSS for more than just money and a place to live — it is giving them a sense of pride, and skills they need to return to independent life.
However, thousands of people like O’Brien and Sykes are about to lose their GA funding. On April 1, Alameda County will cut off funding to thousands of General Assistance recipients. Last fall, that number was estimated at almost 7,000 people, although more recent estimates have put it closer to 3,000.
Like any other county suffering from budget deficits, Alameda County officials must make cuts across the board, including to social services. Although in the past GA recipients could collect funds for up to one year, last June the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted to impose a three-month time limit on recipients deemed “employable” as of January 1, 2010. People who are considered healthy enough to work had the first three months of 2010 to find a job before their GA benefits would be cut off on April 1.
Without GA, many of these people will have no income at all. Although BOSS has pledged to allow its current residents to stay in their homes even if they lose their monthly checks, others in less secure housing situations may end up back on the street, and already-squeezed homeless shelters may have a hard time providing services to everyone.
To recipients like O’Brien and Sykes, GA money is more than a check that keeps them from going hungry or living on the street. It helps them prepare to go back to the lives they had before. “We are very lucky,” said O’Brien, “to get an opportunity to start our lives again. ”
The two men became friends last year after Sykes was discharged from the Villa Fairmont Hospital. At first glance, they look as dissimilar as the brothers in the movie “Twins” — despite being 6’3”, O’Brien is a gentle looking guy with blue eyes and a kind manner. Sykes is shorter, with a shiny cross-shaped piercing in his left ear — the only physical reminder of his wild days. But they quickly understood each other once they discovered that they both worked in carpentry and were divorced and struggling with depression.
They started living at the Rosa Parks House at West Grand and Telegraph Avenue in Oakland this January, where they share a cream-colored two-bedroom apartment. They watch movies together, mostly horror and adventure films selected by Sykes. “Willie spends a lot of time in video shop going through all the movies, which I don’t have any clue about,” said O’Brien laughing.
They both keep the place very neat — then again, they barely have anything except for the clothes they get from donations or buy at Goodwill, a few hygiene products and medications, and the sets of dumbbells that sit on the gray floor of each man’s room. Although this is transitional housing, and they are expected to move out after 18 months, Sykes says his experience here has been much better than his experience at homeless shelters. “Having my own key gives my pride back to me. I am less ashamed to show my place to my son now,” said Sykes.
However, they have no intention of living on GA forever, so they are preparing to live independently again once their time at BOSS is over. For example, says Sykes proudly, “I learned how to budget.” Once every couple weeks, Sykes goes out grocery shopping; he buys vegetables, pot stickers, milk and sugar, carefully checking the price of each item. “I think it is going to be $40,” said Sykes on a recent shopping trip, putting his favorite strawberry ice cream in the cart at the Grocery Outlet, a discount supermarket. Skyes was right: The total came to $40.29.
Budgeting is something he has never done before — Sykes said that back when he was working as a carpenter his love for classic muscle cars made him change his car nine times over 30 years, because “I liked it when people see my car and say, ‘It’s a cool car,’” he said. Once he became dependent on General Assistance and food stamps — which provide another $200 a month — Sykes said he came to appreciate the simple life, including spending quality time with friends and family, especially his son.
But he might have to budget even more carefully if the county cuts off his GA funding on April 1. BOSS would not immediately evict Sykes even if he loses his GA funding, but after 18 months in transitional housing, he would have to move out even if he has no income source. “I might have to move back to my sister’s house in Sacramento, if they can afford it,” Sykes said anxiously. “With this economy, I am not sure.”
Because of budget deficits, Alameda County has imposed several reductions on General Assistance funds over the last several years. At present, recipients get a maximum of $336 a month. But their payment is cut up to $84 if the recipient lives with a roommate, leaving the typical recipient with about $250 to spend a month on everything, including on their rent. In 2009, the county also began to deduct $40 per month from GA recipients who do not also receive MediCal, in an attempt to recoup some of the cost of the county public health services that person might consume.
For several months recently, the county was also imposing an additional reduction for recipients whose rents exceeded the amount of their grants, but in February, Bay Area Legal Aid and The Public Interest Law Project filed a lawsuit against the county, the county supervisors and the county Social Services Agency, claiming that this practice is unlawful. In March, the county settled the suit, agreeing to reinstate that portion of the GA grants.
Alameda County’s GA recipients must survive in one of the most expensive rental markets in the country. According to Rent.com, the overall cost of living in Oakland is 35 percent above the national average, and the median price for an apartment rental is $600 a month. Some GA recipients live with their family, if they can accommodate them. Others live in homeless shelters and transitional houses, like those that are owned and operated by organizations like BOSS.
Norman Atwiil, site coordinator for BOSS, says is almost impossible to find an apartment where rent is less than one’s GA check, unless one is fortunate enough to find a low-income housing provided by organization like BOSS, which has served approximately 60,000 homeless people, including people with mental illnesses, since being founded in Berkeley in 1971. Because it is funded by the Alameda County, the state Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the city of Berkeley, BOSS only charges its tenants 30 percent of their income. That makes it possible for O’Brien and Sykes to live in their apartment, located three blocks away from the Grand Apartments, a luxurious condominium complex, where rent for a two-bedroom averages $2,000.
BOSS owns five transitional housing complexes and apartment buildings: two for people with HIV/AIDS, two shelter programs for mentally ill people who have been discharged from hospitals, and a shelter in North Berkeley which also accommodates children. Although the organization can accommodate about 200 people, Atwiil says, these days demand for services has increased. Hospitals are referring more people with severe mental illness to BOSS, because the hospitals no longer have funding to keep the patients there.
County supervisors know that GA payments are already small. “I understand it’s impossible to live, even with $300 a month,” said Supervisor Gale Steele of District 2, who represents Union City, Newark, Fremont and Sunol.
But the board has continued to make cuts. The board’s biggest change recent has been to set new limits on the amount of time people can collect GA money. In 2008, the county Board of Supervisors approved a six-month time limit for GA funding — the county’s previous limit had been one year. The vote was based on a 1996 state law that allows counties to cut the assistance payment period for an “employable individual” from twelve months to three months.
The action was suspended when Bay Area Legal Aid and the Public Law Project filed suit against the county challenging its definition of “employability.” Steve Weiss, an attorney for Bay Area Legal Aid, argued in a petition for a writ of mandate filed in June 2008 that the county’s Social Services Agency, which has oversight over the GA fund, was violating the Welfare and Institutions Code which mandates that counties “shall relieve and support all incompetent poor and indigent persons.” He further argued that the agency’s definition of “employability” was arbitrary and based on one’s theoretical ability to work — not their actual employability — because it did not take into consideration important factors like a recipient’s education, skills and mental health.
Weiss said the state classifies people like O’Brien or Sykes as “employable” even though they are being treated for severe depression, which he said makes them unlikely to be able to actually work. He also points out other factors that may prevent people who seem employable from gaining work: “What if someone has limited education, a language barrier or has only experienced heavily manual oriented work — are they employable?” Weiss asks.
In July 2008, Superior Court Judge David Hunter blocked the time limit and ruled that the state law only applied only to those who were truly employable, with suitable skills for the current job market.
However, with the county’s budget deficit looming — it amounted to $178 million for the 2009 fiscal year — last June county supervisors again voted for a three-month time limit. In September, the First District Court of Appeal overruled Hunter’s ruling. Presiding Justice William McGuiness wrote in the majority opinion that the county can classify general assistance recipients as “employable” if they are capable of working, even if they are unlikely to find a job. In early January 2010, thousands of GA recipients who were classified as “employable” started to receive letters stating that they had three months to find jobs before their benefits ran out on April 1.
The only way that recipients can remain eligible for continued GA payments is to be deemed completely unemployable by proving to the county that they are physically impaired or mentally ill. The GA recipient must submit a form filled out by a doctor stating that their mental or physical condition prevents them from working. However, Weiss points out that this system can be complicated. If a doctor thinks the patient is only temporarily unemployable, he or she is classified as “employable with limitations” — and that makes them ineligible to keep getting GA money. But, said Weiss, “There is no county-wide criterion that defines employability. The county is trying to cut off those who are categorized as ‘employable with limitations.’”
Furthermore, it is hard for GA recipients who are uninsured to get the form filled out, said Weiss. “If you don’t have insurance, you go to the county clinic. Doctors hardly see patients only to fill out the form,” said Weiss.
Some health organizations are impacted by this complicated system. “We are already in crisis,” said David Moderscach, the deputy director of Health Care for the Homeless, a federally funded nonprofit organization that provides mobile medical clinics for 8,000 homeless people a year, of which 1,500 people are currently on General Assistance. Modersbach said more people are coming to use their services to fill out the form to assess their employability, and that takes doctors’ time away from people who need medical care. “The Alameda County Social Services Agency did not set up a proper procedure to verify employability. We are already taking as many as people we can, and we cannot meet more demand when people are cut off from GA,” said Modersbach.
Some GA recipients who turned in their forms say they have still gotten letters of notice saying that their funding is going to be cut off. O’Brien had his psychiatrist fill out the form, and he said he was classified as unemployable due to severe depression. But he still got the letter, he said. “I had a meeting with social worker three days ago, and she said everything is going to be all right. It is even hard to talk to social worker, because the agency has changed to voice mail to leave your name and number. Ninety percent of the time, they do not call you back,” said O’Brien a few weeks ago. He said he felt uneasy about his future and disappointed and irritated by the social services bureaucracy.
These uncertainties can affect the mental health of the recipients, Atwiil said. “Nobody can figure out what is going on,” said Atwiil, who says the situation is the worst he has seen in 10 years of working for BOSS. “Even after we file the form, when we go to the office, we are told that we have to fill out the form again. These situation is putting the recipients under tremendous anxiety.”
However, BOSS administrators say they will not evict people who are already in their housing program if they lose their GA benefits. “We take 30 percent of their income to accommodate them, but if they have no income, we do not take any money,” said Boona Cheema, BOSS’ executive director.
Most homeless shelters currently provide beds to people in need for free, but county officials admit that there is going to be more demand for the housing. “Some shelters and housings accommodations are already at capacity,” said Sherri Willis, a public information officer at the Alameda County Public Health Department.
Some organizations might have to cut services for each individual. “There are going to be more people. We might have to cut the days that one person can stay,” said Gwen Bell-Babaoye, a program coordinator for 24 Hour Oakland, an organization that provides 17 shelter beds for women and women with children. Currently, 24 Hour Oakland can accommodate each person for up to 90 days, but Bell-Babaoye said that they may have to limit it to 56 days to accommodate more people.
At the moment, it’s not clear how much Alameda County will save by cutting recipients from the GA rolls. The county’s Social Services Agency estimates that the cuts will only save the county about $14.8 million.
In fact, in some ways, cutting recipients from the GA fund could actually end up costing more. A 2009 report by the Los Angeles County Homeless Services Authority indicated that the public cost for paying for shelter and emergency room visits for a homeless person is $2,897 a year, while the public cost for a resident in supportive housing a year is $605.
GA recipients are not planning to give up their benefits without a fight. On February 23, more than 300 people showed up to speak against the cuts at a Board of Supervisors meeting. Although the meeting was supposed to start 10:30, by 8 a.m. more than 50 people were already lined up outside despite a cold and drizzly morning. “Whose money is it? It is our money!” the crowd shouted enthusiastically as county employees walked past, giving cold looks to the protesters who were making it hard to enter the building. The auditorium where the meeting took place was packed, and than 50 people stood throughout the whole five-hour public comment period.
Many GA recipients described what the funding meant to them and what their lives might be like without it. “After losing my job and a place to live, I became depressed and lived for five months in my van. Now I am feeling suicidal,” said 57-year old Linda Swarns who lives in Harrison House in Berkeley, a shelter operated by BOSS. “People care about Haiti, but they don’t care about what’s happening in their backyard.”
Linda Lineberry described her life on less than $300 a month. “For $200, I lived in a garage infested with cockroaches with no heat. Now you deduct $40 for medical expenses because I am not enrolled in MediCal. I only have $46 left for my personal expenses,” said the 62-year old, who said she attempted suicide after living under these conditions.
Others called the new time limit shortsighted and she said that cutting off funding would force people to commit crimes in order to survive. “People are going to do anything to eat. When the poor rob the poor, the whole community is impacted. It is not fair to do that to people who are already underprivileged,” said Monica Steptoe, a case manager for BOSS.
After almost five hours of public comment, the supervisors looked overwhelmed and tired. “I’m not ready to accept this. We have to look for alternatives,” said Supervisor Nate Miley of District 4, which represents the area from East Oakland to Fairview and Dublin.
Steele, who is member of board’s social service committee, seemed astonished by the personal testimony from the audience. “People with mental illness are not supposed to cut off by GA. I don’t understand this,” said Steele.
Some supervisors asked if the county can afford to extend its time limit, but were told by Yolanda Baldovinos, director of the Alameda County Social Services Agency, that it will cost $1 million a month to do so.
Supervisor Scott Haggerty of District 1, who represents Pleasanton, Livermore and most of Fremont, was so frustrated that finally he burst out saying, “I am sick of balancing the budget. I understand the situation and I am willing to listen as much as I can. But what do we do?”
Supervisor Keith Carson of District 5, whose district includes Oakland and Piedmont, suggested a motion three times to reconsider the cuts or find alternatives, but each time his motion was rejected. Later, when asked where the money might come from, Carson acknowledged that the county’s dire financial situation may force it to make cuts to other social service programs. “This is the beginning of the nightmare. You will see more budget cuts across the board coming,” he said.
Some GA recipients are hoping for one last fight.
A few weeks ago, O’Brien and Sykes were in Berkeley, leaning about how the county budget works in a weekly meeting of BOSS’s Community Organizing Team, which they have been on for five months. The team educates 10 members selected from BOSS housing about social justice and how to organize and advocate for their rights. The group talked about whether they will testify at the Board of Supervisors meeting on March 30, as a last minute resort to petition before April 1.
O’Brien recently had some good news: His petition form was processed in mid-March and now he is deemed “unemployable,” so he will continue to receive GA funds. He said he is relieved to be exempted from the cuts. But Sykes does not know if his petition form is going to be processed yet. (Weiss estimates that as more GA recipients have been assessed for employability, the number considered employable has dropped from an early estimate of about 7,000 to closer to 3,000, meaning that fewer people may be cut from the rolls than predicted last fall.)
O’Brien says he is going to fight for others who are facing difficulties. “If the supervisors wouldn’t reverse the decision, I am going to mobilize 200 people to panhandle [as a protest] in Livermore. I know Supervisor Haggerty wouldn’t like that because it is his district, because it is a suburb and people are not used to panhandling,” said O’Brien.
Boona Cheema, who also heads COT, said in the past they have been successful in reversing time limits and cuts by organizing protests in front of the Alameda County Administrative Building, and testifying at the Board of Supervisors meetings in 1995 and 1997. “In the past, change has happened,” Cheema said. “But this time it might be tough, because the county doesn’t really have money. We might make some concessions.”
Cheema said that while they might not be able to get rid of the county’s new time limit, they still hope to get an exemption for people with mental illnesses whether or not they are deemed “employable with limitations,” and to get rid of the payment reduction for recipients who share housing.
O’Brien and Sykes are both very humble and cautious about what the future may bring. Even though Cheema has assured BOSS residents that they can stay in their housing even if their funds are cut off, they must still leave their transitional housing after 18 months. “I do not take everything for granted anymore,” said O’Brien, “We are still one step away from going back to street.” O’Brien said he might try to work as an advocate for poor people after he is done with the COTS program.
Sykes’s wish is simple. “I want to have a car when I get out of the program. It doesn’t have to be a very nice car, but it has to be nice enough so that my son wouldn’t laugh at me,” he said.
This story has been updated to reflect revisions to the estimate of how many GA recipients may lose funding on April 1.