Pandemic pushes the formerly employed into poverty, with scant support

1.6 million Californians will lose their unemployment benefits the day after Christmas. With rent due and a stimulus still up in the air, many Californians are falling into poverty with a weak job market and insufficient aid. 

Nate Hoover of San Diego has been waiting for his identity to be verified by the Employment Development Department since September. In the meantime, he isn’t receiving any benefits that he says he’s eligible for. Without work, and without any money, he’s completely changed his lifestyle.

He’s one of the nearly 8 million Americans who have fallen into poverty during the pandemic. 

"Almost losing my home twice, almost losing my car multiple times, it's been a daily balancing act to call my banks, financial institutions, everybody, so that way they can understand it's outside of my control," he said. "That I'm normally a working person."

Hoover said that he has relied on local aid agencies, including food banks, to make ends meet and provide for basic necessities. But he’s not used to taking help, and although he is immensely grateful, it’s difficult for him to accept.

"I also feel guilty when having to use those resources, because I don't want to be taking away from somebody who really needs it," he said. "But the reality is, I'm in that position now."

The shock and shame of becoming destitute during the pandemic is common among unemployed people. Many people interviewed by KTVU expressed that they never thought they’d find themselves in a situation where they’re collecting unemployment benefits and using food stamps.

Shelly Bridges, an employee at a Los Angeles theater for 25 years, describes herself as a "long-term thinker." But even so, she didn’t predict the severity and longevity of the pandemic.

"When this pandemic first hit, we thought we'd be back to work in like two weeks, two months, it's been over eight months now," she said. "It's so long, I'm not even counting anymore. And every day that goes by, it's, it's scarier."

She’s been furloughed for months, and often wonders if her company will be able to survive being shut down for so long. She lost her health insurance in September, and is nervous about what the winter will bring.

"I'm really nervous about what is my utility bill going to look like," she said. 

Each winter, when she uses a space heater, her utility bill doubles. But last winter, she spent 10 or more hours a day away from the house. Now, to stay comfortably warm in her home for a whole day, it might be beyond her means. She said that she believes unemployed people need more financial help from the government.

"Our Congress needs to realize how serious this is," she said. "I have had so many people tell me that they are moving into their cars."

In the absence of work, Bridges has been looking to learn new skills. She started a popular Youtube channel where she helps people navigate California’s unemployment system. Still, she questions how to best use her time in the face of endless uncertainty.

So does Katherine Spies of San Leandro. She’s unemployed and has applied to over 300 jobs within the past year. 

"It's very demoralizing," she said. "My mental health already was kind of on the rocks."

As a former visual merchandising manager at Target, she said that finding creative work is nearly impossible. She said she is lucky to live in an apartment her father owns, and is judicious with budgeting.

For those who are at risk of losing their housing, like Andrew Zaki of Los Angeles, whose landlord has begun what Zaki says is a bad faith eviction, a few hundred extra dollars a week can make a difference in security and safety. Americans, hopefully, may soon see a few hundred extra dollars in the form of a stimulus.

The rhythms and responsibilities of everyday life have been disrupted for so many unemployed people. Many whose chief concerns used to be work and play, now worry about putting enough food on the table, and keeping their housing.

Hoover said that his greatest joy in life--being an uncle to three children--has shifted dramatically during the pandemic. He normally brings groceries over to his nieces and nephews, and takes pride in helping out his family. 

"Being an uncle, that's what I do," Hoover said. "I’m there to help the family. That's why I work hard. I look forward to being able to help family members out and be an uncle, take them places do things, help them be kids. Right now, you can't do that."

Caroline Hart is a writer and producer at KTVU. She covers unemployment, inequality, food issues, breaking news, and much more. She can be reached at