San Diego When she was 16 and living in Guadalajara, Juana met Gerardo. Two years later, she says, "we got together. My father was born here [in the U.S.], and by that time, he was doing the papers for immigration for my brothers, my mother, and me. But I was already pregnant." When she came to Los Angeles in 1988, Gerardo came with her. On May 17 of this year, four children and nearly ten years of cohabitation later, they got married.
Pretty and quick to laugh, Juana, 28, is sitting next to 27-year old Gerardo, friendly but silent because he speaks no English, on the second-story patio just inside the Salvation Army Emergency Lodge at 726 F Street downtown. Their clothes are casual but not cheap, and they are fresh-faced. Their youngest, two-year-old Joshua, gets passed from lap to lap as we talk about their life. Around the corner in a rooftop courtyard, the rest of their children, Samantha, Leslie, and Gerardo Jr., aged nine, seven, and five, are screaming their way through a party with the rest of the lodge's children. They take special delight in the appearance of a man in a bright-yellow chicken suit. A cake and toys await them in the cafeteria.
Today, it's easy to forget that the entrance to the lodge is a locked door hidden by a protruding wall. The door opens only when you've identified yourself, and even then, a steel gate stands at the top of the stairs, a reminder of where you are. It's easy to forget that anyone who's sleeping in one of the lodge's 57 beds tonight is in trouble.
The party atmosphere aside, Juana and Gerardo seem much happier than I expected. They are homeless, unemployed, bereft of help from family and friends, and living here on borrowed time -- entering their fourth month in a program that normally runs three. They wear all this lightly, maybe because it hasn't yet become a way of life for them, because recently, things were good, and they may be so again.
In 1993, Juana and Gerardo left L.A. for Dallas, Texas, because, as Juana says, "it's the same salary for Texas and California, but the rents are cheaper. For a two-bedroom apartment, $450, and it was a good area." Juana's rent was paid through her job as an assistant apartment manager, which also brought in $800 a month. Gerardo made $300 every two weeks, "cooking hamburgers -- fast food." But then, "I was working with the manager, but then another lady came, and they fired me. The owner, he said he didn't like my job after two years. I didn't believe that. After two years? No way. It was personal for the manager. A couple of days before, someone stole her radio. It was a new radio. Maybe she thought it was me. But that was an excuse to get me fired."
They went to Mexico in March of last year because Juana found work there and because her brother was in a coma. "He died, and three months later, my father died," she says. "That's why we stayed in Mexico." After that, "I wanted to go back to Dallas, but [Gerardo] had already talked to his sister," who lives here in San Diego. "I had a sister in Dallas, and I knew more people there. He didn't have no siblings in Texas." So in July, they came, and Juana found work as a housekeeper in the Old Town Travel Lodge, but the pay was only "$6 an hour, 30 hours or less a week," and then the job ended.
Soon after, they were homeless and looking for help at St. Vincent De Paul, which referred them to the lodge. "[Gerardo] and his sister had problems, that's why we're here in this shelter. My mother lives with my sister [in L.A. My sister] has her own house, and she has two kids and her husband and her. I have four kids, and I don't want to go, and, you know, I don't want to fight with them."
They came here instead, and so far, it's not so bad. They live in a room, furnished with "the basic things, just the dresser and the beds," according to Jacqueline, the lodge's director. They share three women's bathrooms and one men's bathroom with the 15 families and 3 single women currently staying here. ("We have very few males," explains Jacqueline.) A caseworker met them, screened them, and, satisfied that they were willing to work or go to school while they stayed there, placed them in the lodge's program. The program sets goals and deadlines. Juana has learned "how to go to an interview and how to meet the manager, and I already did my résumé. So now I'm looking for a job."
When she's not looking for a job, she sometimes watches movies at the lodge. "We only allow them to watch PG movies," Jacqueline assures me. "We do have Walt Disney movies for the children -- Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White." The children also color and read, and "when they have volunteers, they teach the kids to use computers," says Juana. Jacqueline tells me that many families go to Seaport Village on weekends, "family outings, whatever the families want to do."
"The only thing I don't like here," Juana admits, "is that in comes different people, and some people come with a bad attitude. They don't like to do chores -- we clean the bathrooms, we clean the floors, the tables, we mop. They think this is a jail, but it's not."
It may not be a jail, but, as is often the case with institutions, it is regimented. Residents eat breakfast at 6:00 a.m., must leave the building from 9:00 to 11:45, and must be in through the steel gate by 8 p.m. if they are part of a family, 10:00 p.m. if they are single women. I'm not surprised that the television is regulated, but I am surprised at the amount of rules that surrounds it. The sign next to the television mounted in the corner of the lounge/cafeteria reminds clients that they may not touch the television, i.e., turn it on or off, or change the channels. Next to that, another sign insists that after 8:00 p.m., TV is only for adults without children or one parent of a two-parent family. At no time should children be left in their room unsupervised. Still another sign dictates that on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, television will be in Spanish, while on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, it will be in English. There is no TV on Tuesday. Shut-off is 10 p.m. on weeknights, 11 p.m. on weekends.