Family makes do in squeezed home

Mother, grandmother, four kids and an itinerant 18-year-old share 500 square feet

September 10, 2008 

LE GRAND -- Jo Hernandez harbors no delusions about the 500-square-foot Le Grand home that her children lovingly call their shack. She admits they're right.

The one-bedroom, one-bathroom house that she, her five children and her mother all call home was built in the 1920s from the scraps of an old barn. It has no heat or air conditioning.

The walls of its cramped, dimly lit kitchen have no insulation. They are made of unfinished wood, as is the floor, which more closely resembles a backyard deck.

The kitchen also lacks electricity. The stove is fueled by propane. When the tank behind the house runs empty, Hernandez cooks for her family outside on a grill.

The kitchen table is warped. Its chairs don't match.

The floors through the rest of the small, chaotic house are a mish-mash of green, pink and brown carpet, flattened and stained by years of wear. The walls of the narrow hallway leading to the living room -- which actually serves as a second bedroom -- are bright yellow, chipped and spotted with holes.

The bathroom has no door. Instead, a hanging curtain provides some privacy, though probably not as much as Hernandez's teenagers would like. The bathroom also has no sink. The kids brush their teeth using the tub.

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"It's not my dream house," jokes Hernandez, 39. "But it's all we have."

It's all they have because it's all they can afford.

Hernandez is one of roughly 50,000 Merced County residents and nearly 40 million Americans living in poverty, so her family's struggle is far from unique. But that doesn't make it any easier.

"I wish I could give my kids more," she recently said. "I try to make up for it with love. There's a lot of love in our house. But it's still hard to tell them that I can't take them somewhere because we're out of gas or that there's no money for back-to-school shoes this year."

Hernandez works full time as an office assistant in Merced at Medi-Cab, a government-funded service that provides transportation for the elderly and the disabled. She got the job through a Merced County welfare program about a year ago.

She makes more now than she did when her only income was government aid, but it's still far from what she'd need to get out of the ramshackle house she moved into eight years ago.

"If we could afford it, we'd move," she said. "Or at the very least I'd fix the place up more."

But at $280 a month, her mortgage is hard to beat. And it's all she can manage on her income.

Medi-Cab pays Hernandez $8.25 an hour, or about $1,200 a month. She gets another $600 a month in aid and food stamps.

Her mother, 64-year-old Donna Higgins, gets her own government check. She has her own bills and she pays them herself, but she doesn't have enough to contribute to the household's income.

Hernandez's husband doesn't contribute either. After 14 years of marriage, he moved out about a year ago. "We're separated," Hernandez said. "It should have happened a long time ago. He wasn't treating the kids right."

So Hernandez's $1,800 a month in cash and food stamps must cover the whole family. "It's a tight budget -- very tight," she said. "My kids get what they need, but that's about it. They know the difference between needs and wants. And they know not to ask for too many wants. They know there isn't much point in it."

Things have gotten worse in the last couple months. With the state's budget now more than two months late, Medi-Cab isn't getting its usual allotment from Sacramento. So Hernandez isn't getting paid.

"We're three checks behind right now," she said. "They're saying we'll get the money eventually, but for now I'm living one day at a time. I owe money up the yin-yang."

The sleeping arrangements at Hernandez's house are enough for her children to know that they live differently than most of their friends and classmates.

With only two rooms in the house besides the kitchen and bathroom, no one gets their own bedroom. Most don't even get their own bed.

Hernandez shares a queen mattress in the living room with her mother and her youngest daughter, 8-year-old Carol.

Squeezed into the house's lone bedroom are one traditional bed and one set of bunk beds. Hernandez's oldest boy, 18-year-old Orry, gets his own bunk. So does 12-year-old Katherine. The two youngest boys, 10-year-old James and 13-year-old Faustino, share one.

The family's three dogs, Damien, Digger and Mr. Wiggles, cuddle up wherever they find room.

No one has a dresser or closet to himself either. "My kids are really good at sharing," Hernandez said. "They kind of have to be."

Still, she is grateful for the house she and her husband bought from her father-in-law after they lost the place they were renting in Clovis. Her husband had stopped working because of a disability, and they couldn't afford to stay.

She tries to teach her kids to be grateful, too. "If it hadn't been for his parents selling us this place, we probably would have been homeless," Hernandez said. "Yeah, it's embarrassing to have people over, but I tell the kids at least it keeps the rain and sun off our backs. That's something."

For the most part, Hernandez said, her kids don't complain. But that doesn't mean they don't prefer that things were different.

"I wish we had a bigger house so I could have my own room," said Katherine, her feet dirty from playing outside with no shoes. "That would be cool. Maybe I'd have my friends over more if I had my own room."

She quickly added: "But I'm glad I'm not spoiled. I wouldn't want to be like that."

There's been a little more space in the house since Orry left in June, but Hernandez hopes he'll come back. "We had a fight," she said. "He just grew up a little too fast for me."

Hernandez is careful about paying her bills on time, and she tracks her monthly spending meticulously. "When the budget's this tight, you have to watch it," she said. She did away with her credit cards years ago and hates that she's gone into debt since her paychecks have stopped coming.

Besides her mortgage, Hernandez's biggest expenses are food and transportation.

If you judged her family only by what they eat, it might not seem as if they're struggling. Hernandez attributes that to priorities and food stamps. "The food stamps help a lot, and I make sure my kids never go hungry. That's not a place I'll skimp."

Her kids go through a lot of juice and soda when they could drink just water. Most weekends they have a family barbecue. The spread on one recent Saturday was far from meager: hot dogs and hamburgers with all the fixings, beans, deviled eggs, two kinds of salad, iced tea and soda.

"Did you get enough, baby?" Hernandez asked her youngest son, James, as he cleaned his second plate.

"Uh-huh," he answered, his mouth still full. Most of the kids had seconds that day.

"My kids eat until they're full," Hernandez explained. "But that doesn't mean I don't try to save where I can."

Like most poor single mothers, she's learned how to stretch her food budget. She buys in bulk and freezes food. She cans food herself. She clips coupons. She shops at the dollar store, Wal-Mart and Food 4 Less.

She's taken food from charity before, but she didn't like doing it. "It was hard for me. I kept thinking there had to be someone who needs it more than us."

She's learned plenty of tricks to save on other expenses, too. When the kids ask to go to the movies or the nickel arcade, Hernandez instead suggests the park or riding the new bikes she bought for the whole family with the government stimulus check she got this summer.

Her children have learned not to expect expensive gifts for birthdays and Christmases -- a consequence of both growing up poor and of the religion their mother has practiced since she married their father, a Jehovah's Witness.

The kids share clothes, and getting new gear is a rarity. Carol, the youngest, has pairs of jeans that have belonged to each of her siblings over the years.

Hernandez recently replaced her car's busted radiator herself. "I never could have afforded what a mechanic charges," she said. "So I figured it out myself."

She's found no tricks, however, for saving on gas. Hernandez estimates she spends about $500 a month filling up her 1992 Suburban.

She tried to get something better at a dealership but was told her income was too low to get a loan. She also doesn't make enough to put money away for a down payment. So she bought the Suburban from her son's friend for a few hundred dollars.

She knows she could save a lot by upgrading to a vehicle in better shape that's more fuel-efficient, but she can't afford to -- one of the many cyclical dilemmas that help to keep poor people poor.

"There's a lot of things that would be different if we had more money," she said. "Even little things -- I'd love to take the kids out to eat or to the zoo. But those are extras. We just don't get many extras."

Hernandez's mother, Donna, who moved in after Hernandez's husband moved out, said the family makes up for those things in other ways. "We still have our fun. We tease a lot. If you can't take a joke you won't survive in this family," she said laughing, her face creased well beyond her years from decades of smoking.

A mother of five herself, Donna watches her grandchildren while Hernandez works. Though she joked in front of them this summer about counting down the days until school started again, she talks about them adoringly when they're out of the room.

"Family is the most important thing to me," she said. "It's all that keeps me alive."

Hernandez, too, beams when she talks about her children. "They're really good kids. I always tell people I'm lucky to have such sweet ones. They help out a lot. They look out for each other."

Ask Hernandez why she is poor and she thinks a moment before she gives an answer that boils down to a lack of education.

"I think a lot of it has to do with how bad I did in school," she said. "I always had trouble with my reading and spelling, and I was always told I was stupid. That's real hard to overcome."

Hernandez's parents divorced when she was 8. After that, she and her mom and her four siblings moved around a lot. Hernandez spent most of her childhood on welfare. Her mom worked as a waitress.

It was her stepfather who always told Hernandez she was stupid, she said, adding, "I believed him."

She dropped out of school after eighth grade, but eventually went back, earning her GED after Orry was born.

"I didn't want my kids to have any excuse for not finishing high school," she said. "I didn't want them to be able to say, 'But mom, you didn't finish.'"

At least so far, that strategy hasn't worked how she hoped it would. At 18, Orry hasn't finished high school. Since he left home, Hernandez worries more and more that he won't go back.

Though she acknowledges they've had some trouble, Hernandez said the rest of her children are doing well in school.

"Faustino could have done better last year, but he's promised me he's going to try harder this year," she said. For the most part, she said, her children bring home A's and B's. Both Katherine and Carol repeated second grade.

For Hernandez, college was never really an option. So she's spent most of her working life in minimum-wage jobs -- as a waitress, as a cook, in rest homes. She sold Avon for a while. She's been on welfare on and off for most of her life.

She doesn't feel guilty about taking the help, and she thinks it's a system that works -- but she hopes her kids avoid it.

"I make more now that I'm working. I try to show them that. I try to show them that it's better to get a good job and work," she said.

"I tell them that they're smart and they can do anything they want. I tell them they have to do better than their mother did."

Reporter Corinne Reilly can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or creilly@mercedsun-star.com.

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