San Diego Rosa came west from Pennsylvania -- "two and a half, three years ago" -- with her new husband. Her ex-husband "was really abusive toward the kids. He threw my son through a wall. My husband now didn't like it very much, so he moved us out of there. The only place I knew was San Diego, because I had lived here before."
Once here, Rosa attended both medical assistant school and veterinary assistant school while her husband stayed home with her kids -- Jeremy, 10, Alissa, 7, and Andrew, 6. He also did odd jobs. She received $595 a month from AFDC (aid for families with dependent children), and the family lived in a $400/month downtown studio.
In May, they moved up to Catalina. "I moved up there to get on my own [financially]. Minimum wage up there is a lot higher than in San Diego; you can make up to $7 to $10 an hour." She got a job at Catalina Stables as a guide for tourists riding horseback and as medical caretaker for the horses, $7 an hour plus tips. Also, "the person I was working for would give the kids odd jobs, pay them a dollar or two."
The cheapest rent she could find was $659 a month, for a hotel that rented rooms as apartments, "and that isn't big enough for my family." So, about a month ago, they moved back here. Her husband got a job helping decorate at Barona Casino, $7 an hour. The apartment they hoped to get was already rented. They stayed in a hotel room for a few nights, but her food stamps didn't come in. They ran out of money and ended up at St. Vincent's.
"We were trying to find an apartment and trying to find work, and I guess the police officers decided that they were going to clean up the streets of San Diego. They came and got him [from in front of St. Vincent's]. There were cops all over the place; they were arresting everybody. Now he's in jail waiting on extradition to Pennsylvania," where there is a warrant for his arrest. "He doesn't want us to [follow him]. He's going to have that taken care of and have his parole transferred out here."
St. Vincent's gave her a hotel voucher for a week. "Once you've been in a situation, being in with a lot of families, it's like you want to get away from it. So you know, a hotel room is just like heaven. It's good sometimes, when you have families that are supportive. But some other times, it's like all there is is problems, and you have to deal with other people's problems, and you just want to get away." The week ended, and now she is here at the downtown shelter for families, located at 633 State Street. "It's better than being out in the streets," she says with a smile and a shrug.
Anthony has been sitting with her as she talks. "It's almost Christmas," he interjects. "Because it's the 15th now, and Christmas is on the 25th."
What do you want for Christmas? "My daddy." Any presents? "Playstation."
"They always go for that," laughs Rosa. "When we were little, we always went for Barbie dolls, all that stuff. Now..."
"I want the WWF Wrestling game. It has a cage match."
"I'm trying to get into the second floor at St. Vincent's," says Rosa, "but it seems like nobody wants to help me out. It's a four-month program; you have four months to get up on your feet and find yourself an apartment. Different programs, stuff like that; it's really helpful. I want to just try to get my life back together with the kids and everything -- getting permanent housing, getting the kids back in school [they've been out since returning to San Diego], getting off welfare."
"If you're on the second floor before Friday," adds Anthony, "you get to buy six presents for the kids and two presents for the adults."
"That's not why we want to get up there," she reminds him.
"Because you get your own TV," he suggests. "Then we can watch WWF."
Do you believe in Santa, Anthony? "No. I don't even believe in the tooth fairy," he grins. "I don't even believe in the Easter bunny. I don't even believe in the magic Thanksgiving turkey."
"You believe in God, don't you?" asks Rosa.
"Yes," he replies. Later, he volunteers, "Christmas is God's birthday."
The shelter's entrance is in back, on the Union Street side, two doors opening onto a parking lot. There is no sign. Through the doors is the common room -- streaked gray concrete floor, off-white walls, aqua doors, rows of fluorescent lights. A desk, chair, and file cabinet have been set up just inside the doors. Beyond them, two floral-pastel couches sit at right angles. Behind the couches stand two tables surrounded by chairs. At the other end of the room, more couches are set up around a TV. Cleaning supplies and a laundry cart line one wall. The room's white bigness swallows the sparse furniture.
* * *
John looks young, and as he carries trays of food into the shelter, he moves with a young man's ease and assurance. But when he talks about his kids, his eyes get a little wider and softer with care.
He has four -- John Jr., 15, Arturo, 14, Jessica, 10, and "my baby, Sarah," aged 7. As a single father, he has trouble playing the role of both parents. "Especially my little girls -- they need the mother figure. There's a soft part that the mom plays. Moms know because they were little girls; they can relate to little girls. My little girl got upset the other day because I told her that she can't play, she has to be with me. It's kind of harder to explain in a man's way. I had to get one of the women that were here to go over to her, and they were able to calm her down. She came back and she gave me a hug and she understood. That part of the mom I'm trying to get, but it's hard."