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For Richer or for Poorer?

In wealthy Marin, opposition to low-income housing is high—and so are the numbers of the county's poor, aged and disabled who need it most



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The 66- and 69-year-old couple sit next to each other and speak as a unit, interrupting and finishing each other's sentences. She's articulate and professional: he's casual, abrupt and unafraid to drop the occasional "bullshit." Every once in a while, she'll hold a cautioning hand up to him and look warily in the direction of my recorder.

Around the time they started the program, Schwartz recalls, they heard about a Hamilton woman who could only afford to eat three potatoes a day. "People have to have medication and they have to have a roof over their head," she says.

"Food gets compromised more than medicine; at least two-thirds of our recipients come to us because that is literally their choice," Kinkead adds. "And they're tickled to death that they're getting food of this quality."

He estimates that Respecting Our Elders distributes roughly $4 million of discarded food a year. "We're dealing with garbage. Garbage has zero value—it can't affect anyone's social security," he says. "As long as 40 percent of America's food is ending up in landfills, I refuse to be the least bit niggardly with this stuff."

Though Schwartz says many who receive food from them live in market-rate housing, she adds, "There's one premise that there's not enough affordable housing, and another that some of what is available isn't really all that 'affordable.'"

Some days, the couple holds a food day like the one I witnessed; others, they'll deliver it to low-income senior complexes.

In wealthy Marin, they say, hunger is everywhere.

Many of the social issues plaguing Marin County's lower-income seniors certainly aren't unique to this upscale region. Stagnating social security, evaporating pensions and a bankrupting medical system are problems that transcend Marin in a society that systematically says to its elderly: You no longer work. You don't matter.

But though affordable housing is merely a scratch on the economic surface, it's a resource that could make a vital difference in the lives of those like Burkland and Terry, and its lack is only going to be felt more strongly as the boomers age. While housing debates rage and future development gets tangled in red tape, the county Department of Aging projects that by 2025, the portion of Marin's residents over 60 will increase to more than 30 percent of the total population.

With fixed-incomes and age-based disabilities making shelter an economic burden, some, like Terry, will probably try to leave this supremely unaffordable county. But with long-standing networks made of family, friends and church communities, many won't. Unless something changes, the landscape of need—set against the pristine hills and hiking trails of beautiful Marin—will only get worse.


This article was produced as a project for the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC's Annenberg School for Communcation & Journalism.

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