The American Dream is built on a singular premise: hard work and determination deliver success and prosperity. It’s the simple calculus of the country’s foundation, an uncomplicated and easily comprehensible cause and effect, a promise made to every citizen, every immigrant, every dreamer who lives here.
But in Sonoma, the American Dream can be hard to grab hold of. In a city where the median home sells for $679,000, where rents have increased by nearly 50 percent since 2012, where low-income housing is extremely difficult to secure, the American Dream can feel like a mirage.
Take Juliana, 24, single mother of two – and, no, that’s not her real name. She’s a native Sonoman employed full-time with a major Valley nonprofit and makes $16.60 per hour. With an income of $2,600 per month and the average apartment renting for $1,792, Juliana can’t begin to make ends meet in Sonoma.
Economists — and landlords — recommend that housing consume no more than 30 percent of an individual’s monthly budget. Juliana would be spending nearly 60 percent of her income sheltering her family, if she could find something to rent in the first place.
“I’ve looked in Napa, Santa Rosa and Petaluma,” she said. “In Sonoma it is really hard to find a place that’s affordable.” So Juliana and her children live in a carport in Boyes Hot Springs, with a cement floor, a corrugated plastic roof and the occasional rat.
“It gets cold at night, and the roof leaks when it rains,” she said quietly.
Juliana was — by her own admission — a difficult adolescent. When her parents couldn’t curb her behavior at 14, they sent her to her ancestral home of Mexico, instead.
“They told me I was going on a two-week vacation. But then after a week they called me and said, ‘No, you’re not coming back, you’re staying there until you’re fixed. It was a one-way ticket,” she said.
For two years Juliana worked the avocado groves with her grandmother, and alongside her aunt, bagging soil for trees. There was no school, no playtime, no Mom and Dad, just work. The plan was to grind the willfulness out of Juliana and plant obeisance in its place. But the plan didn’t work, not at all.
Juliana is a U.S. citizen, but her parents are undocumented. They’ve lived a difficult, hard-scrabble life. Their two-bedroom rental in the Springs is wall-to-wall.
“The dining room that was converted to a bedroom is rented out to an older male cousin,” Juliana explained. “The garage has a roof and a small kitchen and sink, and is also being rented out to another male cousin. The living room is rented out to two male cousins, and my parents have one bedroom and my sister the other.”
By the time Juliana was 16, she didn’t seem to fit anywhere. And the misbehaviors that had previously earned her a one-way ticket to Mexico escalated.
Mercifully, the mistakes of adolescence are generally benign: blown curfews, beer-pong disasters, a mysterious dent in the family sedan. Others can root perniciously in a young person’s life, and change its trajectory entirely.
Juliana got pregnant at 17, and dropped out of high school shortly after. “I made a lot of mistakes,” Juliana admits. “I was doing a lot of things that I shouldn’t be doing.”
A second pregnancy followed because Juliana had met a new guy that her parents liked, and she saw in him an opportunity to regain their affections. “He was the type of person my parents approved of and wanted me to be with. He was very traditional and grew up in Mexico, and worked as a laborer, and my Dad really liked him,” she said, fidgeting with the blue streak in her short hair.
Even then Juliana knew the forbidden truth about herself: she liked girls, not boys, but that wasn’t OK. “It was something that I kind of had to put away,” she said softly. “It’s something I’ve known since I was little, but I just put it away.”
The relationships that produced her children were violent. There were flights into the night, and trips to the ER. “My first ultrasound I went with a black eye. It was not great,” she said, with astounding understatement. Like many survivors of trauma and abuse, Juliana tells her story with a kind of robotic detachment.
Until she gets to the part where she’s raising her children, and then, Juliana nearly glows. The girls are 7 and 4 now, and attend local schools. Neither child is financially supported by their father. Despite that, she is determined to provide a future for them that didn’t feel accessible for herself.
“I want to do everything to help them so things turn out better for them. I want a good future for them. I’m at the point where I don’t care if I embarrass myself. I need help,” Juliana said.
For a while, she lived at the YMCA shelter in Santa Rosa. Then she and the girls moved to a studio in Boyes. But the owner forced all the tenants out to make renovations, and when the building was ready again, rents had shot up. She found work as a live-in caregiver for an elderly woman, but the woman grew fragile and had to be moved, and Juliana and the girls were displaced again. So now it’s the carport, with the rats and the rain.
“I applied to Springs Village and Firehouse Village, and I always follow up with new information every time I change addresses or jobs,” she said. “Every time I hear of something opening up I call and they say ‘Oh, there’s a wait list, we’re looking at applicants from 2012.’ With the Fetters Apartments, I tried there as well, but they did kind of a raffle thing, so I was out of luck. They said ‘there’s over 800 on the wait list, there’s not much we can do, but follow up in a few years.’”
Juliana and her girls don’t have a few years: their situation is untenable, and needs resolution. “If somebody does want to help me in any way, therapy for my kids, a room for rent, please contact me,” she said. “I just need anybody to show me any kind of support.”
Juliana fidgets in her chair and looks away. It is clear that requesting this of strangers exacts a price.
“I’ve been working since I was 14,” she says finally. “I’m very responsible. All I want is just to live. I want to focus on my kids and bettering myself. I’m just trying to be happy now. I’ve been through a lot.”
Email Kate at firstname.lastname@example.org.