Serena Jones, 2, high-fives L.A. County social worker Ani Muradyan at the… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)
When Genivive Jones lost her job last year and started bouncing between friends' homes and motels with her toddler daughter, she inadvertently joined one of the fastest-growing groups of state welfare recipients: homeless families who receive aid known as CalWorks.
Over the last five years, the number of CalWorks families without a permanent place to live has grown by 98%. That's nearly four times the growth of non-homeless families who are also getting assistance.
The increase shows how difficult it is for people on the lower rungs of the financial ladder to improve their situation in the current tough economy, experts say, especially because the average amount that Los Angeles County families get from the state has shrunk from $560 a month three years ago to $490 last October.
"The largest growth has been at that level of need where people are at the ledge of homelessness," said Michael Arnold, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
Grants could become even smaller if Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget passes. Brown wants to reduce CalWorks by about $1 billion.
"If some of these safety-net programs are cut, it will push a lot of people to homelessness," Arnold said.
Or, as Glendena Stephens, a caseworker who has been with the county for 45 years, put it: "The rents are so high and the grants are so small, it doesn't leave them with hardly anything. I've never seen anything like it."
Jones is fairly typical of CalWorks recipients, who are generally single mothers with young children. The 23-year-old had steady employment with a financial company before being laid off. After her savings ran out, she slept in a car and then lived with a series of friends before deciding she was better off on her own.
Since then, she's been staying at motels in the Gardena area while trying to get by on the $516 she receives each month while searching for work.
Jones has had to make several tough choices, including buying her 2 1/2 -year-old daughter, Serena, a pair of pink Keds while making do herself with a six-pack of socks and a pair of thin rubber flip-flops.
"I make sure she has what she needs," Jones said during a recent meeting with her caseworker, Ani Muradyan.
As Serena colored, Muradyan went over options with Jones, including how to get a credit check and sign up for classes at a community college. Muradyan also scheduled an appointment for Jones at a local shelter.
"Do you think I'll be able to get a job?" Jones asked. "I hear Wal-Mart is hiring."
"That's a good place to start," Muradyan said.
Nearby, other caseworkers were also trying to find jobs for clients.
Raul Pasco emigrated from the Philippines to the United States with his two young daughters — Angela Rose, 4, and Keighdrine Roze, 9 — after being sponsored by his mother, a legal resident. But Pasco, who works in construction, has been unable to find a job and had to move out of his mother's home to a shelter in Lancaster after a family dispute.
Pasco was hoping to earn enough to send money to his girlfriend, who is the mother of his daughters, but "there's no work right now," he said.
Even though there are county offices near the shelter, Pasco takes the train into Los Angeles to meet with his case manager, Cameron De Cree.
"I like him; he works hard," Pasco said.
As De Cree went to find a colleague who had potential leads on jobs, one of Pasco's daughters asked him: "Are you going to get a job today?"
"Not today," Pasco said quietly. "But maybe soon."