Sandra stands in her black rubber rain boots in preparation for rain. She asked to only be identified by her first name.
For 13 years, Alameda County Community Food Bank has hosted a legislative breakfast – now lunch – to engage our community of elected officials, clients, and partners in a conversation around our policy priorities for the upcoming year.
The most powerful voice in the room is, and has always been, the voice of lived experience with hunger. This year, I wanted to ensure that this crucial voice was present from the experience of the eastern portion of Alameda County, known as the Tri-Valley, where hunger and poverty are rapidly increasing.
I want to preface this story from one of our East County communities with a quote from our partners at Open Heart Kitchen in Livermore:
“When people think of homelessness and poverty, they don’t think of this area,” said Clare Gomes of Open Heart Kitchen in Livermore, which in the past five years has doubled the number of schools providing free bagged lunches for children to take home on the weekends. “They think of it as being affluent, but there also is the opposite extreme. It’s more hidden than in Oakland and San Francisco.”
When I met Sandra, the first thing I noticed was her doormat that rested outside her tarp-covered shelter down along the mudded Livermore creek. It wasn’t too far from businesses, restaurants, and a grocery store.
The second thing I noticed was her tall black rubber rain boots.
“I’m worried about this rain,” Sandra said.
She folded her arms tightly and looked concerned at the gray, clouded sky. She exhaled, squeezed her body again, and turned her head away. I introduced myself and Sandra did the same.
I asked her gently, almost sheepishly, how long she and her boyfriend had been living along the creek with more than 50 neighboring community members.
She exhaled with a surrendered tone. Sandra continued to shake her head side to side and back up at the clouds threatening to spill. I paused, noticing that I was holding my breath, and then asked her how it had come to be this way.
“Well, I had been living with my daughter. But she died within one year of being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and I could not afford to live in our home anymore. The rent went up,” Sandra said.
She choked up, glanced at the darkening clouds, and dug her hands deep into the pockets of her hoodie. Water was coming down in at least one way. I reached out and held her hand. Slowly, I felt a gentle squeeze back.
We held hands for longer than I’ve held anyone’s hand in a long time. It had all been said.
Sandra bravely went on to share her own health journey. She’s a cancer survivor. However, her employer used that battle as justification for letter her go from a job that she’d dedicated 13 years to. The Supplemental Security Income grant that Sandra now receives can’t provide any sort of refuge in Livermore – or anywhere else in the state.
Not a single SSI recipient can afford their most basic needs: food, rent, and healthcare in any county in California.
Like more than one million Californians, Sandra is in the red. The cost of living in Alameda County adds up to Sandra being nearly $1,000 short every single month.
What cannot go to rent goes toward paying for propane tanks in order to stay warm in her shelter along the embankment. Sandra also pays for a storage unit so she can preserve what’s left from her home and life with her daughter. What little savings Sandra had paid for a memorial.
However, it is Sandra’s daughter’s passing that reminds her of an older gentleman who regularly brings her food. They’ve connected over both having lost a daughter. Sandra shares with a big smile about how honored she feels to have been given one of his daughter’s sweaters.
“Anything anyone needs, he’s there” she beams. “He understands us.”
I feel deeply honored and humbled to have carried Sandra’s voice into a packed room of people who share our belief that food is a basic human right. Too often, community members living with hunger are excluded from decision-making spaces where critical policy change can happen.
However, 2020 presents an immense opportunity for us to change that. From the Census to voting, the Food Bank will continue to serve as a place where we include our many community members’ voices from across the county into action. By strengthening this culture of civic engagement, we can ensure a more just and nourished community.
About the author: As a Bay Area native and member of Alameda County Community Food Bank’s Policy and Partnerships Department, Alex Boskovich is responsible for promoting strategic collaboration with local government, private institutions and organizations for ending hunger and promoting thriving communities. This includes serving as a Steering Committee Member of the Tri-Valley Anti-Poverty Collaborative – a cross-sector organization dedicated to addressing issues of hidden poverty in East County suburban areas. Prior to joining the Food Bank, Alex served as Senior Legislative Aide to Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan covering policy issues related to health and human services as well as community development. She holds a Masters in Social Work and is a proud mama bear of a soon to be 4 year old.