Family fights to hold on while mired in poverty

November 25, 1990|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

BULLHEAD CITY, Ariz. -- Dennis Peterson squints at the desert sun, and his blue eyes go hard at the question of how he will feed his family tonight.

He pawned some of his wrenchesfor $20 yesterday -- "the guy said these tools were kept in real good condition," he recalled with a workman's pride. His two daughters helped him pick up soda cans on the roadside to sell to a recycler. For five pounds, they got $1.35.

"Honey, we can't fall any further than this," said Janice, his wife, with a hopeful tone. "We've gone down just about as far as we can ride."

"Yeah, we've told ourselves that quite a few times," her husband gently scoffed.

Most of the money went for last night's dinner and breakfast for the kids. With the last of it the Petersons bought some gas and paid to stay one more night at a dusty, sun-cracked campground here where the desert runs dry against the Colorado River.

There is no money for supper. And by tomorrow the family will have to move again. Without $8 for another night's rent, the campground is going to evict them. They will leave in a sad, weary caravan: Janice Peterson driving the old Pinto; Dennis Peterson and the girls in the patched Ford van, pulling behind the tiny camper-trailer that has been home to the family for more than a year.

"I'm not bad trash. I'm just a person who's trying to keep my nose and my family's nose above water," Mr. Peterson said angrily.

This was supposed to be a fresh start. They came here looking for work, hoping for a chance to get a home like the one they lost in their small California town when rent and the utility bills got higher than their pay.

They became nomads. From their home, they moved to a tent, and then to a camper on a mountainside. They left their town to find jobs where times were supposed to be better: in Palm Springs, then in Phoenix, now in Bullhead City outside the gambling boom-town of Laughlin, Nev.

They met many others like them on the road. These families have refused to stay in impoverished rural towns to feel the slow squeeze of poverty. When the coal mine closed or the lumberyard shut down, when the auctioneer sold off the foreclosed farm, they gambled that life could be better elsewhere.

They are the flotsam of rural poverty. They travel with the same frightened determination that propelled busted farm families in laden jalopies fleeing the Dust Bowl in the '30s and poor blacks streaming to the great manufacturing cities from the exhausted land of the South in the '40s and '50s.

"All we need is a break. We don't need charity. We don't need a handout. All we need is someone to say, 'Hey, we'll give you a chance,' " said Mr. Peterson.

Some find work. Others are disappointed. Many, even those who get jobs, find no escape from the poverty that forced them to take to the road. The arithmetic of economic life is stacked against them. The high-paying factory jobs that require no special skills are largely gone; the low-paying service jobs available to untrained workers will not cover food and housing.

So the families remain locked out. They keep moving from town to town, a new class of urban migrant workers. Or they stay at a low-paying job and accept the poverty of life in a campground or a city park or the back seat of their car. And hope for something better.

"We're not the only ones. There's a zillion people out there," said Mrs. Peterson, a round-faced woman of 43 with an unquenched smile. "They're walking the streets with signs: 'I'm out of work. Feed me.' Little kids with them. I feel sorry for them."

There are few numbers as proof. But confirmation comes from those who witness the despairing stream of homeless.

They come every day to Bullhead City: "Families pull up with absolutely nothing," said Lt. William Cobb, who, with his wife, operates the overburdened Salvation Army station here.

They come to Phoenix. "It used to be just single men. Now the number of families arriving here is drastically up," said Judy Almy, who runs a homeless outreach program.

They come to Cincinnati. "They think there are still manufacturing jobs here. There aren't," said Bev Merrill at a shelter in nearby Covington, Ky.

They come at the rumor of jobs. Two years ago, when construction was plentiful around Washington, D.C., they pitched their tents in public parks in suburban Virginia. When the slumping market froze construction, the migrant families disappeared in the night, pursuing work and a dream elsewhere.

"We never expected to be in this situation," Mrs. Peterson said. Herhusband said, "We are just lower-middle-class people who have been kicked off the edge."

From the open spit of beach where their camper-trailer sits, Mr. Peterson, 41, glares at a high-speed motorboat roaring past on the Colorado River. The expensive toy sucks gas for play, while his family scrapes for food money. Anger rises in his face, then subsides.

"It gets hard, when we sit here looking at our kids and seeing they're living this way. It's not right," he said, quietly.

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