LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Now to California, where thousands of people wake up in cars, tents and shelters and then get ready for work. The state is facing a huge shortage of affordable housing, and that means even full-time workers can find themselves falling into homelessness. David Wagner reports from member station KPCC.
DAVID WAGNER, BYLINE: Nereida is wrapping up a shift at her job in an LA optometry shop.
NEREIDA: I am calling to confirm your appointment with us for tomorrow.
WAGNER: At the end of each shift, six days a week, she turns off the display lights in the eyeglass cases. She sets the alarm, locks the doors and walks out to her car. And some weeks, that's where she stays.
NEREIDA: There's been several times where I just slept in my car. I parked close to the gym because that's where I get ready in the mornings.
WAGNER: On any given night, LA County has close to 16,000 people living in vehicles. Nereida came to LA with her two young daughters almost a year ago. We're only using her first name because she hasn't told her boss she doesn't have a stable place to live.
NEREIDA: I don't want him to have a different view of me. And to think that I'm homeless is going to affect my work life.
WAGNER: Nereida is staying with a friend for now. Someone has always been willing to let her kids spend the night, but she never thought finding a place of her own would be this hard. She makes $17 an hour, but the area's median rent for a two-bedroom apartment would claim more than half her income.
NEREIDA: You have to really focus on work when you're at work and try to put on a face that everything's OK. Once you're done, you break down because you don't have a place to go.
WAGNER: The numbers on the working homeless in California are only estimates from annual city surveys. In LA, about 8 percent of adults who are homeless say they're doing some kind of work. But 27 percent of those with children, like Nereida, say they're working part or full time. Employees have protections on the job when it comes to things like their race and gender, but...
JESSICA BARTHOLOW: There are no laws in California that protect you from being discriminated against based on your housing status.
WAGNER: Jessica Bartholow with the Western Center on Law and Poverty pushed for a 2012 California bill that would have changed that. It was modeled on a Rhode Island law, the first to give homeless workers these kinds of rights. But the bill died in committee. Bartholow thinks California should reconsider it.
BARTHOLOW: If we know that income is one of the best ways out of poverty, why wouldn't it be a best policy practice to make sure that people who are homeless and who are working are not at risk of losing their jobs or having reduced hours?
WAGNER: Some employers do try to help. The Northeast Valley Health Corporation provides services to people who are low-income or homeless. There have been a few times when their own workers, the very people helping the homeless, have themselves lost their homes. CEO Kim Wyard says their connections to LA's homeless support system have been a huge help.
KIM WYARD: I think that it may take a little bit of digging to put a homeless resource list together for your staff, but those resources are there.
WAGNER: When Nereida, the optometry shop worker, has reached out to those housing resources, she says the reaction hasn't always been helpful.
NEREIDA: Do I have to look like, you know, ripped clothes, dirty clothes? Like, I don't know what they expect me to look like. I have a job, so I can't come to work unpresentable or unprofessional.
WAGNER: Nereida's biggest fear is that she'll end up back in her car but this time, with her kids in the back seat. For NPR News, I'm David Wagner in Los Angeles.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This story was part of the statewide California Dream collaboration.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.