Marin Independent Journal: A portrait of two Marins
February 25, 2012
By Paul Liberatore - Marin Independent Journal
February 25, 2012
AT 5:45 ON A RECENT cold, dark winter morning, when most of Marin County was still asleep, a line began to form at the back of the Hamilton Meadow Park Elementary School in Novato. Parents of students queue up early every Wednesday morning, waiting their turn to fill shopping bags with groceries at a farmers-market-style "healthy children pantry," one of eight the Marin Food Bank operates at Marin schools in partnership with the San Francisco Food Bank. And it isn't enough. The food bank is looking to open another site in Hamilton.
"Because of low-income housing," said the food bank's Jamie Pedrani, "there is so much need. But it's very hidden. When you drive through this neighborhood, everything is so new and well-maintained that you don't think of it."
In "A Portrait of Marin," the controversial human development report commissioned by the Marin Community Foundation, Novato's Hamilton neighborhood is singled out as "having one of the county's shortest average life spans and an overall lack of access to healthy food and recreation areas."
In other words, the men and women in this line, bundled against the frosty morning chill, don't eat as well as the rest of us and aren't expected to live as long. Only 14 miles north of affluent Mill Valley, where there are two Whole Foods markets, Hamilton's 6,000 residents have one of Marin's lowest well-being scores. It's one of the neighborhoods the report compares to rural West Virginia.
"A Portrait of Marin" is something of a misnomer, because in reality it paints a picture of two Marins: the wealthy Marin of all the familiar cliches, the Marin, to quote the report, with "levels of well-being and access to opportunity that the state of California (as a whole) will not experience, if current trends continue, until 2054."
And then there is the other Marin, the marginalized Marin, inhabited by a growing number of people that Thomas Peters, the foundation's president and CEO, describes as "fellow residents who struggle to pay rent, child care and insurance, and even to put food on the table."
For Candice Perry, a 32-year-old military wife and mother of four boys, ages 6 months to 9 years, the weekly groceries she gets at Hamilton school help put food on her family's table.
"Grocery stores are outrageously expensive and four boys eat a lot," she said as she lugged a bag, kids in tow. "It's nice having things like this, otherwise we'd be in trouble financially."
When her husband, a Coast Guard engineer, was transferred to Marin from Florida six months ago, the family suddenly found it a lot harder to make ends meet, even though they live in military housing.
"The cost of living is killing us here," she said. "We have only one income, and a paycheck goes quick here — gas, food, everything to go do on the weekends costs a lot more. I don't know how people make it here, personally, without help from things like this."
It's highly unlikely that Martha Ochoa, a 45-year-old single mother of three, couldn't have made it in Marin without the Novato Human Needs Center, a nonprofit dedicated to helping low-income people in crisis.
Ochoa was certainly in crisis when, fleeing an abusive husband, she was two weeks away from being evicted and, with nowhere else to turn, she came to the center. Its Transitional Families Initiative Program helped her with medical expenses, housing, food, car repair, to get a work permit and to apply for a green card, which she expects to get this year. She has also taken classes in early childhood education and English as a second language at College of Marin.
"They saved my life," she said one recent evening, sitting with her two youngest children, 12-year-old Emily and 16-year-old Alex Mendoza, at the dining room table in her tidy three-bedroom apartment in a low-income Hamilton complex. Her oldest son, Luigi Mendoza, 19, a former wrestling and cross-country champion at Novato High, is a scholarship student at Claremont McKenna College, a Southern California school that is among the most competitive to get into in the country. He's the first in his family to attend college. She proudly displays his 2010 high school graduation photo, which she couldn't afford to buy until recently.
"It took a while, but I bought it," she said.
In his college application, Luigi wrote about pushing his abusive father away from his mother: "In that push, he became a ghost, a poignant memory and no longer a part of my future."
Like their older brother, Emily and Alex are top students. Alex isn't able to participate in sports or after-school activities because he has to be at home to look after his sister while his mother works an evening shift at the Target store in Novato, making $9 an hour and getting off at 11 or 11:30 at night. During the day, she has an $11-an-hour job in a cafeteria kitchen for the Novato Unified School District. She earns a little more than $20,000 a year.
"It's so expensive in Marin County," she said. "I have to have two jobs to maintain this apartment, even though I'm in low-income housing. But we stay in Marin County because the schools are better here. I want my kids to have a better life than I had, and there are more opportunities here to have a better life. Another reason is safety. I feel safe here and the kids do, too."
But living side-by-side with wealthy Marin can sometimes make this family aware that they are at a disadvantage.
"Sometimes in school there are kids who have more than we do, and more things to make it easier for them, like materials for homework and computer assignments," Alex said. "We have to work a little bit harder to reach the same goal."
Emily, an A student with perfect attendance at San Jose Middle School, was offered a scholarship to a more prestigious private school in Marin. She lasted one day.
"I didn't like the other kids looking at me like I'm different," she said. "It was uncomfortable."
Her mother noticed it, too.
"When I went there, I felt the same way," she recalled. "I told Emily, 'I'm not going to leave you here.'"
Life in Marin
It's another one of the ironies of life in Marin that the low-income people in Marin City, home to most of Marin's 6,621 blacks, can look across Richardson Bay and see the mansions and estates of lily-white Belvedere, one of the highest-income communities in the United States.
Natalie Jenkins, a 53-year-old mother and grandmother, prefers to look the other way, at the green hills of the nearby Marin Headlands.
"I go and sit on a bench and feel at peace," she sighed.
A recovering alcoholic five years clean and sober, she lives in public housing and is in her second year at College of Marin, studying to be a substance abuse counselor.
The primary regret of her life is that she disappointed her parents when she didn't go to college after graduating from Berkeley High School. Now, by returning to school, she's trying to set a positive example for her children and grandchildren.
But she's doing it on a shoestring.
Jenkins says she's paid $600 a month to provide day care for her 3-year-old grandson, and $2.57 an hour for her 7-year-old grandson from CalWorks, a state program that provides temporary financial assistance and employment-focused services to low-income families with minor children.
"I made some wrong decisions in my life that I'm not ashamed to talk about," she said one day in the offices of the Phoenix Project, which helps young men in the community prepare for and find jobs. "I'm trying to make a change in my life. At 53 years old, I don't think it's too late."
While she has a positive attitude, she has never believed the economic system has been fair for people on the bottom of the 99 percent, and she feels a lack of compassion from those in positions of wealth and power for the less fortunate.
"I guess the people at the top can't put themselves in other people's shoes," she said. "But things have gotten a lot better than when I first moved here. There are so many resources that are available, and people will help you if you reach out your hand for it."
Here are some of the findings included in the Marin Community Foundation report:
- Ross residents' median personal income is $64,378 a year, more than twice that of the typical American worker.
- In San Rafael's Canal neighborhood, median earnings of $21,000 a year are what a typical American worker earned in the 1960s.
- The top fifth of Marin taxpayers earn about 71 percent of the county's total income. The bottom fifth, 1.3 percent.
- Less than half of Canal residents have a high school diploma. In Tiburon's downtown area, 99 percent have at least a high school diploma.
- Residents of Ross are expected to live on average 13 years longer (age 88) than people who live in Novato's Hamilton neighborhood (age 75.2).
- A working adult with a preschooler and a school-aged child needs to earn more than $80,000 a year to make ends meet in Marin.
- The typical woman worker living in Marin earns $13,829 less per year than the typical male worker, a larger gap than in the state or nation.
(c) 2012 Marin Independent Journal. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the Marin Independent Journal.
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