When Poverty Strikes

Every evening, the petite, homeless Jewish woman discreetly parks her compact car across the street from a public park. She spends the night in an automobile that holds all her possessions. She keeps it meticulous. In the morning, she washes up, also discreetly, in the park’s public bathroom. She keeps a low profile so no one will call the police and ask her to move on.

A decade ago, Janet*, who is in her 50s, had her own apartment and steady — if modest — paying work as an artist. Then, when her father developed Alzheimer’s, Janet had to give up her career and her apartment to care for him full-time. Father and daughter lived on his life savings until he died several years ago. By then, all the money was gone, and though Janet scrambled to find a job, any job, she discovered there was little interest in a middle-aged woman who had not worked in seven years.

Because Janet was under 65, she was eligible for only some $200 in welfare benefits monthly and around $85 worth of food stamps, hardly enough to pay the rent. When the eviction notice came, she moved into her car, with just a suitcase of clothes, some toiletry items and her portfolio.

Today, she spends her isolated days in libraries, malls and bookstores, trying her best not to appear homeless. Somehow, she manages to keep herself tidy and well-groomed, though she is anxious about the future.

“If something happens to her car, she knows she will be left out in the elements,” says Jan Ballin, regional director of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, Valley Adult and Children’s Services (JFS is a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation). “As a formerly middle-class, educated Jewish woman, she never thought it would come to this.”

Janet is part of a grim statistic in the L.A. area: Almost 50,000 Jews, 10 percent of the total Jewish population, are living near or below the poverty level, says Pini Herman, author of the 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey.