Mountain View Voice

News - November 22, 2013

'A hand up, not a hand-out'

Community Service Agency helps those the economy left behind

by Nick Veronin

It's hard living paycheck to paycheck. It's even harder if you happen to live in the heart of Silicon Valley, where, over the last 18 months, rents have jumped significantly, according to officials with the Community Service Agency.

"The rents in Mountain View and the surrounding areas have skyrocketed in the past year and a half, and working poor families are just getting squeezed," says Maureen Wadiak, associate director of CSA, a local non-profit that helps struggling people and families in Mountain View.

The Mountain View-based non-profit is one of seven local community agencies that will benefit from contributions to the Voice's annual Holiday Fund drive.

Making a gesture indicating the steep increase in local housing costs, Wadiak explained that those who come to CSA have been feeling increasingly strained lately. Some who come are sharing their apartment with another family or have to choose between paying rent and buying food, she said.

That's where the Community Services Agency comes in. Those who qualify can pick up canned food, bread, grains and fresh vegetables from the Food & Nutrition Center. The organization will assist people struggling to make rent with a one-time disbursement of funds and over the holidays the CSA redoubles its efforts — helping families with Thanksgiving dinner staples and by collecting and giving away toys and other gifts.

On a recent Monday, the Voice talked to a local man who said he has been relying on CSA for years.

Richard Torrez grew up in Mountain View. As a youth, he struggled to keep up with his studies, but dropped out before graduating from Mountain View High School. After his parents died, he ended up homeless with no family to fall back on.

Torrez said he found a new family at CSA. "They're very good to me over here," he said. "These people helped me out."

CSA helped Torrez find low-cost housing, he visits the center regularly to get groceries, and even gets advice from his case worker on which items to choose from the pantry and how to prepare them. CSA even helps him with dog food for his companion, Lemon.

It's clear Torrez's dog means a lot to him. When his previous dog died, Torrez said, "I just gave up."

While CSA sees plenty of men and women like Torrez, along with the working poor, seniors account for a large portion of the agency's clientele, according to Tom Myers, the organization's director.

"Seniors are one of the fastest growing segments of the population here (in Silicon Valley)," Myers said. "They're also one of the segments of the population that people don't think about when they think about low income or homeless. But if you're a senior living in an apartment, and your rent keeps going up and up and up, and you're still living on a fixed income, that could be a recipe for disaster."

On Monday, many seniors waited in line for their turn to gather items from the Food & Nutrition Center. Others sat in chairs inside the lobby, waiting their turn to be helped.

The holidays are an especially busy time for CSA. The organization has been collecting baking supplies and working with local grocers so it will be able to help struggling families have a proper Thanksgiving dinner. The agency is also collecting toys, which it will distribute to parents next month, so that they may give their children gifts during this season of giving.

Both Wadiak and Myers emphasized that the agency does its best to make sure families who are having a hard time never feel undignified asking for help. "We look at it like a hand up, not a hand-out," Myers said.

Helping local parents provide gifts for their children this holiday season is great for the kids, Wadiak said. But it's also a blessing for the parents, who so often have to make tough decisions about what they can afford the rest of the year.

In the end, Myers said CSA is about creating a healthy community.

While those working in the tech sector might be thriving, there are plenty in other sectors of the local economy who are having trouble getting by, he explained. If Mountain View is to be a vibrant and diverse community, it needs to be a friendly and hospitable place to those who can't or don't want to land a job in tech.

"Healthy communities are those communities that are able to support a wide variety of socioeconomic levels," he said. "A healthy community is a community that cares."

Email Nick Veronin at nveronin@mv-voice.com

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