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The high cost of sheltering in place

Without work, many families won't know how long they can pay their bills

Three days before public health officials announced a March 16 stay-at-home order, Lucero Romero learned she was out of work. As YMCA's after-school program site director at KIPP Valiant Community Prep School in East Palo Alto, Romero had her hours reduced to zero because schools across the Bay Area announced they were shutting down.

Soon, the same thing happened to her mom, who works as a house cleaner.

"People were canceling, one house at a time," Romero, 23, said on Wednesday. "They would call her saying, 'Sorry, but don't come right now.'"

Then her dad, who works in construction, was given notice.

"My dad was unsure of his job. But then the next week, he only worked Monday and Tuesday. Tuesday, he came home and he says, 'I'm officially, not working.'"

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And, finally, her 20-year-old sister, Evelin, was told by her employer — the East Palo Alto nonprofit Nuestra Casa — she'd have to start working fewer hours.

Though the shelter-in-place order, first implemented by six Bay Area counties and quickly followed by the statewide mandate, applies to all Californians, it has affected families unequally across the class spectrum. And for many like Romero, the potential harm is slowly settling in.

"We have a little bit saved that we can use," Romero said. "But what's going to happen when we're using the money that we're supposed to be saving in the future, if we can't return to work anytime soon?"

Living in East Palo Alto with a family of six, including two younger siblings — a brother in eighth grade at Ravenswood Middle School and a sister who's a freshman at East Palo Alto Academy — Romero's household is unlike the traditional nuclear family where a couple supports their dependent children.

Ever since she got her first paying job a few years ago, Romero evenly split the bills with her family — with Evelin following suit when she started working at the nonprofit. Fortunate enough to be able to rent a two bedroom, one bathroom, apartment for $1,500 in a complex where some families are paying $2,600 for a similar unit, Romero's family has long supported themselves without significant government assistance with the exception of programs such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), of which Romero and Evelin are recipients.

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But Romero's situation isn't an outlier. At Palo Alto's Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, Francisca Vazquez, 24, also will need to take a hard look into her family's savings to see how long they can last without any income flowing into the household of six — her mom, her mom's husband, a younger sister who's home from San Jose State University, and her 4-year-old and 3-month-old siblings.

Her mother, a floral designer, and her mother's partner, a chef for a Google company, have been bringing in the income, but they are unable to work during the pandemic.

"We're trying to make do with what we have," Vazquez said on Tuesday. "The first rent is due in a week or so, so we're seeing how much money we have to see if we can pay the first month's rent."

Her predicament is shared by many vulnerable families, according to Tomas Jimenez, professor of sociology at Stanford University, who focuses on immigration, social mobility and racial identity.

"Anytime you have one of these major events, it not only highlights the inequality — it exacerbates it," Jimenez said. "The people who are already teetering on the edge of economic insecurity or even health insecurity are the ones who are most affected."

Romero has experienced severe financial strain before. When her father underwent brain surgery and later slipped into a coma during a time when he was the sole financial provider, she and her mom learned how to pull their resources together and survive.

But the COVID-19 crisis has been an unprecedented hit to the household. And given that a timeline for the pandemic doesn't exist, families like Romero's and Vazquez's will have a hard time determining what their long-term plans should be.

"I literally just found out today that school closures were going to get extended to May 1," Romero said. "Thinking of so many things and how we're going to figure this out — it's just hard."

Lauren Griffin, a data manager at the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, said that studies have shown how vulnerable individuals are prone to focus on the short-term during times of survival.

"That mentality, I think — especially during a global pandemic — makes a lot of sense," Griffin said. "It's not that there's not an ability there or a desire to think long-term, but it's just not possible when you're focused on surviving.

"And I think that's part of the way that we think as Americans as well. It's hard to zoom out from these kinds of individual-level solutions to more long-term structural solutions."

To mitigate the economic impacts of business closures and the stay-at-home order, county and city officials across the state are implementing temporary policies that relieve families from some financial stress caused by layoffs or furloughs.

On March 23, Palo Alto City Council passed a law that prohibits landlords from evicting tenants who've been impacted by the coronavirus, providing residents 120 days to pay off their rent after the city's state of emergency is lifted.

"I heard the city's not going to make us pay rent," Vazquez said. "But we just got this note from the new owners of the mobile home park saying that we have to pay on time. If anything, it said that if we had trouble paying it — go talk to them at the office to see what they can do to help us out. But we'll see how it goes. Hopefully they're more understanding."

On a national scale, U.S. Senate leaders came to an agreement on Wednesday for the final version of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (or CARES Act), which includes a historic $2 trillion relief package. Part of the funds will go toward direct payments of $1,200 to eligible, individual Americans. However, undocumented immigrants, such as Romero's parents, would not be eligible, and it's unclear if DACA recipients like Romero are included in the stimulus bill.

"Everyone's talking about whether the government is really going to help us; is the president really going to give us the money that we need?" Romero said. "I wonder about that, too. Is he going to forget about us?"

On Wednesday, the Santa Clara County Public Health Department identified 84 new cases of the coronavirus, with a total of 459 reported cases and 17 deaths. In San Mateo, 195 people tested positive for COVID-19 and five people have died from the disease as of Thursday, March 26.

"We don't really know what the fallout is going to be," Jimenez said. "We certainly don't know what the fallout is going to be in terms of people's physical and mental health."

Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and The Almanac here.

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The high cost of sheltering in place

Without work, many families won't know how long they can pay their bills

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Fri, Mar 27, 2020, 8:51 am

Three days before public health officials announced a March 16 stay-at-home order, Lucero Romero learned she was out of work. As YMCA's after-school program site director at KIPP Valiant Community Prep School in East Palo Alto, Romero had her hours reduced to zero because schools across the Bay Area announced they were shutting down.

Soon, the same thing happened to her mom, who works as a house cleaner.

"People were canceling, one house at a time," Romero, 23, said on Wednesday. "They would call her saying, 'Sorry, but don't come right now.'"

Then her dad, who works in construction, was given notice.

"My dad was unsure of his job. But then the next week, he only worked Monday and Tuesday. Tuesday, he came home and he says, 'I'm officially, not working.'"

And, finally, her 20-year-old sister, Evelin, was told by her employer — the East Palo Alto nonprofit Nuestra Casa — she'd have to start working fewer hours.

Though the shelter-in-place order, first implemented by six Bay Area counties and quickly followed by the statewide mandate, applies to all Californians, it has affected families unequally across the class spectrum. And for many like Romero, the potential harm is slowly settling in.

"We have a little bit saved that we can use," Romero said. "But what's going to happen when we're using the money that we're supposed to be saving in the future, if we can't return to work anytime soon?"

Living in East Palo Alto with a family of six, including two younger siblings — a brother in eighth grade at Ravenswood Middle School and a sister who's a freshman at East Palo Alto Academy — Romero's household is unlike the traditional nuclear family where a couple supports their dependent children.

Ever since she got her first paying job a few years ago, Romero evenly split the bills with her family — with Evelin following suit when she started working at the nonprofit. Fortunate enough to be able to rent a two bedroom, one bathroom, apartment for $1,500 in a complex where some families are paying $2,600 for a similar unit, Romero's family has long supported themselves without significant government assistance with the exception of programs such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), of which Romero and Evelin are recipients.

But Romero's situation isn't an outlier. At Palo Alto's Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, Francisca Vazquez, 24, also will need to take a hard look into her family's savings to see how long they can last without any income flowing into the household of six — her mom, her mom's husband, a younger sister who's home from San Jose State University, and her 4-year-old and 3-month-old siblings.

Her mother, a floral designer, and her mother's partner, a chef for a Google company, have been bringing in the income, but they are unable to work during the pandemic.

"We're trying to make do with what we have," Vazquez said on Tuesday. "The first rent is due in a week or so, so we're seeing how much money we have to see if we can pay the first month's rent."

Her predicament is shared by many vulnerable families, according to Tomas Jimenez, professor of sociology at Stanford University, who focuses on immigration, social mobility and racial identity.

"Anytime you have one of these major events, it not only highlights the inequality — it exacerbates it," Jimenez said. "The people who are already teetering on the edge of economic insecurity or even health insecurity are the ones who are most affected."

Romero has experienced severe financial strain before. When her father underwent brain surgery and later slipped into a coma during a time when he was the sole financial provider, she and her mom learned how to pull their resources together and survive.

But the COVID-19 crisis has been an unprecedented hit to the household. And given that a timeline for the pandemic doesn't exist, families like Romero's and Vazquez's will have a hard time determining what their long-term plans should be.

"I literally just found out today that school closures were going to get extended to May 1," Romero said. "Thinking of so many things and how we're going to figure this out — it's just hard."

Lauren Griffin, a data manager at the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, said that studies have shown how vulnerable individuals are prone to focus on the short-term during times of survival.

"That mentality, I think — especially during a global pandemic — makes a lot of sense," Griffin said. "It's not that there's not an ability there or a desire to think long-term, but it's just not possible when you're focused on surviving.

"And I think that's part of the way that we think as Americans as well. It's hard to zoom out from these kinds of individual-level solutions to more long-term structural solutions."

To mitigate the economic impacts of business closures and the stay-at-home order, county and city officials across the state are implementing temporary policies that relieve families from some financial stress caused by layoffs or furloughs.

On March 23, Palo Alto City Council passed a law that prohibits landlords from evicting tenants who've been impacted by the coronavirus, providing residents 120 days to pay off their rent after the city's state of emergency is lifted.

"I heard the city's not going to make us pay rent," Vazquez said. "But we just got this note from the new owners of the mobile home park saying that we have to pay on time. If anything, it said that if we had trouble paying it — go talk to them at the office to see what they can do to help us out. But we'll see how it goes. Hopefully they're more understanding."

On a national scale, U.S. Senate leaders came to an agreement on Wednesday for the final version of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (or CARES Act), which includes a historic $2 trillion relief package. Part of the funds will go toward direct payments of $1,200 to eligible, individual Americans. However, undocumented immigrants, such as Romero's parents, would not be eligible, and it's unclear if DACA recipients like Romero are included in the stimulus bill.

"Everyone's talking about whether the government is really going to help us; is the president really going to give us the money that we need?" Romero said. "I wonder about that, too. Is he going to forget about us?"

On Wednesday, the Santa Clara County Public Health Department identified 84 new cases of the coronavirus, with a total of 459 reported cases and 17 deaths. In San Mateo, 195 people tested positive for COVID-19 and five people have died from the disease as of Thursday, March 26.

"We don't really know what the fallout is going to be," Jimenez said. "We certainly don't know what the fallout is going to be in terms of people's physical and mental health."

Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and The Almanac here.

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