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Private Struggles in Public Housing

Services: Residents of San Fernando Gardens live in a twilight zone between welfare and independence.


PACOIMA — The plan, as Roberta Marie Williams sees it, requires escaping from within the black gates of San Fernando Gardens.

The 17-year-old single mother has lived at the public housing project since age 2. She acknowledges that it is not so terribly trash-ridden, that the city runs numerous programs to help tenants find jobs and that you can avoid the drug dealers if you mind your own business.

But Roberta still feels trapped by poverty at the development, the only major public housing project in the San Fernando Valley. That fact, coupled with federal welfare reforms enacted last year that will shrink government relief checks nationwide, has her hustling.

She recently enrolled at Mission College and started working part-time at a nearby Jack-in-the-Box restaurant, which she fears may affect the portion of the $700 a month in public assistance she shares with her mother, her 21-month-old daughter and three others in the household.

"They're already threatening to cut people's checks," said Roberta, who graduated from San Fernando High School in June. "If they cut welfare, I don't know what I'd do."

For Roberta Marie Williams and others at the 446-unit development next to Whiteman Airport, like thousands of tenants at the 20 other public housing projects run by the city Housing Authority, getting ahead in the age of welfare reform will mean overcoming daunting obstacles such as sorting out a new set of rules.

This month, California won the biggest share--$189 million--of a $1.1-billion federal jobs fund to employ welfare recipients with few job skills and little, if any, work experience. The award will be coordinated with the state's new $6-billion-a-year welfare program called CalWorks.

Still, how many recipients can succeed under a five-year lifetime cap on benefits remains to be seen. Thousands of residents lost their food stamps as of Sept. 1.

"Most of the people are not job- ready," said Don J. Smith, executive director of the Housing Authority. "What we're trying to do is stay real close to the action."

For Smith, the action includes whatever employment efforts occur between project management and tenants citywide, as well as with legislators in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento.

The authority's 21 projects house 35,000 people.

San Fernando Gardens, built in 1955 to assist low-income families, houses 1,738 of those tenants. Its 81 buildings sit on 33 1/2 acres bordered by Van Nuys Boulevard, Pierce Street, and Norris and Pala avenues.

Just about every family there struggles. Average household income for a family of four is $11,890 per year, compared to the $47,500 median family income for the region. Almost 40% of the project's families receive welfare assistance.

Some residents--Roberta is one--cannot afford phones. Some need handouts to buy clothes for job interviews.

Filemon de la Hoya, who recently lost about $190 per month in food stamps that helped him feed his wife and four youngest children, sat outside his apartment one afternoon wondering what to do next.

A legal immigrant from Mexico, he makes about $5.50 per hour working at a golf-club factory. "These cuts are drastic," De la Hoya, 49, said in Spanish.

Like many others at San Fernando Gardens, where the tenant population is 96% Latino, he views his job opportunities as limited by his difficulty with English.

It is precisely such pessimism that prompted the Housing Authority to open its multipurpose community center on Lehigh Avenue three years ago. One of five opened citywide so far, the center's purpose is to help a steady stream of residents of all ages who are seeking a better life.

Inside, tenants practice computer skills, meet with tutors or receive counseling or job training. Children also practice folkloric dance or take karate lessons.

Soon, a new child-care center and playground will make it easier for parents to look for jobs.

Mario Matute, the community center's project director, spoke earnestly about how services at the center help prepare residents for work and increase self-esteem.

"What we've done is make personal connections with people," he said. "I tell them, 'Look, if you're not doing anything, come to the community service center.' You have to give people the opportunity to change."

But Matute also is frustrated that even when residents find work, the wages are often too low for them to leave welfare rolls. In addition, many employers will not hire residents with only basic job skills, he said.

"I wish I would meet an employer who would tell me, 'I have 10 or 15 positions. Send me some people,' " Matute said. "I haven't found that employer yet."

Single mother Roberta, an aspiring probation officer who turns 18 Friday, was one of the relatively lucky ones helped by the center. About a month ago, she found part-time work making $5.35 per hour at the fast-food eatery after the manager was contacted by center caseworker Glenda Taylor.

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