The Real Nanny Diaries

Nobody asks about the circles under Rosa’s eyes, and no one will. Her bosses think she disappears the second she leaves their home.

I: EDUARDO

At 8 o’clock on a Monday morning in June, Rosa Coronado arrives for work at a two-story mansion in Beverly Hills. All over L.A., it’s the hour of exchange, when those who inhabit middle- and upper-class homes turn them over — along with the children they shelter — to those who make them run. Steady streams of luxury cars with white drivers race down the canyon roads as brown men in battered trucks full of mowers and rakes drive up. Dark-skinned women, most trudging uphill on foot from boulevard bus stops, knock on doors. Rosa’s luckier than most; seven years ago, when her son, Miguel, was born, she bought a car. She’s 29 now, short and slender, but with strong bones and curves. Her skin’s the color of lightly creamed coffee, her thick black hair cut to shoulder length, then washed with a red tint and waved. Her features are strong: heavy black brows, full mouth. When she’s dressed and made up to go out, men stare. In the typical daily domestic-worker uniform of loose jeans and T-shirt, she disappears, just one among the thousands.

She rings the security buzzer on the gate at the foot of a long driveway. When it unlocks, she heads in and through the main house’s back door. As soon as she drops her purse in the laundry room, she hears the call from an upstairs bedroom. “Rosa!” She knocks, enters. The room is immense — canopied bed, sitting area, two attached bathrooms and closets as big as her own apartment. “Please give Samara breakfast.” Rosa takes the 3-year-old girl from her pretty, stick-thin mother, the young wife of a spectacularly successful businessman in his mid-60s. In her 10 years as a nanny, this is the richest family to employ her — eight-bedroom, nine-bath house, two gardeners, three housekeepers, two secretaries, and two babysitters, one for each child.

Qué quieres comer?” she asks Samara gently. As in several homes, she’s been told to talk to the girl only in Spanish — child care and language lessons, all for the same hourly wage. Huevos. In an enormous kitchen, she prepares an egg-white omelet, fruit and dry toast for the little girl — the mother is very concerned she not get fat — and makes sure she eats every bite, since no other food will be permitted until lunch. She brushes the child’s teeth, cleans her bottom, dresses her in a cotton shirt and pants. The clothes are simple, but fashionable and well-cut. Eighty dollars for the top, $150 for the slacks; she’s seen the price tags. Over the years, Rosa has learned not to dwell on the financial disparity between herself and her bosses, but today it’s harder, with the situation involving her half-brother, Eduardo, in the back of her mind.

The day grinds on: hours of playing in the house and yard, reading children’s books in Spanish, watching educational videos, preparing a healthy, low-fat lunch of fish and vegetables. (No dessert, of course; sometimes the household workers feel so sorry for the little girl that they slip her chocolate bars when the parents aren’t looking.) Rosa genuinely loves children — usually, they’re the easiest part of this work — but today she’s exhausted. After she found out about Eduardo, she couldn’t sleep, and she has to rise at dawn to dress and feed Miguel, drop him off at school and make the drive in from the Valley. While Samara naps, she goes back to the laundry room to eat the usual lunch of chicken, beans, rice and tortillas the family’s cooks have prepared for the domestic staff. Then she hurries to wash and fold clothes before the girl wakes, and it’s another round of singing, playing, filling time.

Nobody’s asked about the circles under Rosa’s eyes, and no one will. In the past, she’s had employers who genuinely cared about her and wanted to share her life. There are children she still sees, years after she stopped sitting for them. But here, as at several other jobs, her bosses seem to feel that she disappears the second she leaves their home. Her history, needs, obligations are just potential inconveniences — reasons for her to call in sick on a day when they really need to be at the office. Or worse. Rosa still remembers the way the 8-year-old in her last family, the son of a wealthy attorney, talked about her to a school friend. “She doesn’t speak English,” he said, right in front of her, his voice full of contempt. “People who speak Spanish are stupid and poor.”

The day ends at 5 o’clock. Rosa picks up Miguel, gets home by 6, cooks, helps him with homework. He’s moving on to third grade, but can barely read. “I hate school,” he tells her. She fights to get him in bed, then her own mother, Flori, calls, to cry and moan once more about Eduardo: “Ay . . . pobrecito . . .

Rosa didn’t hear anything about the trouble with Eduardo until yesterday morning, when she went to her favorite panadería on Beverly, said a casual hello to someone she knew from Guatemala, and out of nowhere, the woman began screaming at her. “Don’t ask how I am! How do you think, with what your pervert brother’s done? The bastard! Your family’s a disgrace! Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about! Hija de la puta! You hypocrite!” Confused, humiliated and half in tears, Rosa fled, then called Flori, who reluctantly filled in the details. Eduardo, 21, who still lived in Guatemala, had been accused of assaulting the angry woman’s nephew, a 13-year-old. Flori had paid for a medical exam for the child. His family refused to share the results, but said they wanted money or they’d call the police. When it didn’t come, Eduardo was arrested.

Was the accusation true? Eduardo ran with a tough crowd, but there’d never been a hint of anything like this. An uncle who lived next door swore it was just an attempt to extort money from someone with relatives in America. But in Guatemala, truth could be irrelevant, and a lawyer cost even more than a bribe. So Eduardo was in jail, and would remain there unless someone came up with cash.

“Two thousand dollars,” Flori now says, weeping. “You know I don’t have it, m’ija, you’re the only one who can help.”

Again, no sleep. Rosa was 10 and Eduardo only 2 when Flori left them behind to go to the United States. Rosa bathed and changed him; he was her baby. How can she not try to save him? Everyone knew what happened to young men in Guatemalan jails.

But $2,000! Nearly a decade of working, and Rosa still earns less than $10 an hour. Because her current employer has (illegally) put her on his company payroll, he deducts taxes, Social Security, Medicare. She takes home $1,420 a month, no benefits. Rent and utilities cost $565; house and cell phones $82; car payment and insurance $400; and she almost always sends $100 or $200 to her 87-year-old grandmother in Guatemala. There’s nothing to cut. Her apartment’s already rent-subsidized; without a car, she couldn’t get to her job, and nannies who don’t drive earn even less; without the money she sends, her grandmother won’t eat. Miguel’s abusive father, from whom she’s been separated for a year, gives her nothing, and she hasn’t had the cash to petition for divorce and a formal agreement for custody and child support. She has no health care, and has never received adequate treatment for chronic back and kidney problems.

She could beg for a salary advance, borrow the rest. If you’ve managed to crawl out of abject poverty, don’t you owe those left behind? On the other hand, why must one person always have to carry a whole family, especially one, like hers, whose misery is so often self-inflicted? What’s the right thing to do? When you’re lying in an air-conditioned Valley bedroom imagining your brother being raped in a prison cell, that’s not an abstract moral question. Two a.m. She’s going to feel awful again at work tomorrow. Three o’clock. Four.

No answer.

  1. ALMA LUZ

Stories of desperation in 21st-century Los Angeles often begin in other, even more desperate places. In this case, it’s La Piedra, Guatemala, a small town three hours southwest by dirt road from the capital, near the Pacific Coast. Outside town, acres of cotton, coffee and sugar grow beneath a broiling tropical sun, and in spring the streets blacken with ash from burning cane. Even nights are hot and humid, and at noon families flee their stifling cinderblock houses to sit stupefied in the heat. Work in the fields or the few factories is seasonal, and when it dries up, people go hungry. As recently as 1998, a government poverty-reduction plan estimated the rate of chronic malnutrition in the region at nearly 50 percent.

In Guatemala, the rich control the poor; poor men’s compensation is rule over women. Flori had her first child, a girl, at 14; by the time Rosa was conceived, less than two years later, her parents’ relationship was already falling apart. After Rosa’s tío Enrique happened to stop by at the very moment her father was pushing Flori’s head into a bucket of water, Rosa’s grandmother, Alma Luz, put her foot down. “It’s time,” Alma Luz told her very pregnant daughter, “for you to come home.”

Alma Luz was among La Piedra’s poorest. Rosa was born to life in a champa built of plaited sugar cane, coconut palm fronds and mud. Water came from a well; the bathroom was a communal field. Flori’s ex had a decent job, but also a new woman and no interest in helping out, so she left her babies with Alma Luz and moved to the capital to find work. Money came home, but never enough. When the older girl was 3, Alma Luz — without asking Flori — gave her to the father to raise. “You have money for another woman, you have money for your child,” she told him. “I can’t care for two.”

Enraged when she returned for a visit to find her firstborn gone, Flori transferred Rosa to a neighbor’s care. The woman used the money Flori sent to feed her own family, while Rosa starved. “Mire!” wept an aunt who visited one day to find her 2-year-old niece filthy and emaciated. “She’s dying!” Back Rosa went to Alma Luz. The change guaranteed food, but no more. Her grandmother was a fearsome matriarch, a veteran of three bad marriages that had produced eight children, six of them still living. She had long since given up on love, had come to enjoy living alone, and was furious at having to rear children again — and at her petite, sexy youngest daughter, who kept producing them: After Rosa came Victoria, Maria, Cristina, Eduardo, all of different fathers, none of whom contributed one quetzal toward milk or diapers. Victoria died at 7 months of yellow fever, Maria at 1 year of whooping cough. Alma Luz got the rest, and after Flori followed an older sister to the U.S. in 1983, the kids began calling their grandmother “madre.”

All through Guatemala, the children of poor single mothers were given away or left to wander the streets. Rosa knew that Alma Luz had literally saved her life, and for that loved her passionately. She had no one else to love. But the price was high. “I didn’t ask for you! I didn’t want you!” her grandmother would scream when the children misbehaved, lashing out with her hands, and sometimes an electrical cord. “If the tree grows twisted, it will never stand straight” was the precept by which she lived, and straightening took force. Household tasks had to be done right — sheets not scrubbed well enough at the wash sink were ground into the dirt to be washed again. One day, Alma Luz grew impatient as she watched 7-year-old Rosa struggling to make tortillas, always jerking her fingers away as she cooked, because she was afraid of burning them on the hot comal. “You must learn to be a woman, not a girl,” she said angrily. “Do you know how to lose your fear?” She held the girl’s open hand over the red-hot iron grill, then pushed it down.

By contrast, the absent Flori was a glamorous face in a photo, an occasional long-distance call, a dream. She had found work in Los Angeles as a babysitter, and the money she sent paid for a new cinderblock house and outhouse, and later, an indoor toilet with cold-water shower. Packages arrived, stuffed with clothes purchased at garage sales. “My mother sent them, mi madre,” Rosa would whisper to herself. In her fantasy life, they were together and everything was different. They would laugh, talk, go to dances together — Flori was loving and patient, the kind of mother who would listen to a girl’s fears about boys and growing up, and made the worry go away.

Alma Luz watched her granddaughter reach puberty and clamped down even harder. No homework until hours of chores were done. No going to basketball games. No boys, unless she was right there in the room. Absolutely no wearing the shorts Flori sent — disgracia — “You’d sit side by side with the whores!” she yelled. Rosa chafed, rebelled; their fights became open warfare. “If you don’t send money to bring me to you, I’m moving to the capital!” she finally wept by phone to Flori. “I can’t live here anymore!”

The money came. Alma Luz collapsed in tears with apologies and pleas that Rosa reconsider, but it was too late. Flori hired a coyote, and Rosa joined a group mostly of Salvadorans to make the 3,000-mile trip north. They traveled a month, walking, running, exhausted and often hungry, avoiding the migra patrolling the hills near the U.S. border by throwing themselves into a fetid bog. In late 1989, Rosa arrived in San Diego stinking and covered with insect bites, but full of hope. Finally, she would be with her mother, in a place of possibility and money. She was 16.

She found Flori living in a converted garage in Oxnard. There was a new man, a small-time coke dealer, who’d recently been in jail, as had Flori. There was no money. And there was — surprise — another new baby. Rosa had hoped to go to school, but Flori needed help at home. For a year, Rosa changed diapers and watched her new stepfather come home drunk and go to work with his fists, while her mother pleaded and wept. Even a teenager could see that this woman would never be a mother in the traditional sense; she couldn’t even look after herself. Though she couldn’t have articulated it, Rosa also grasped what it would take to have a relationship with the woman she’d missed for so long: Shewould be the caretaker. An uncle got her a live-in babysitting job in Canoga Park. She found the baby indescribably beautiful, like a little doll, with his white, white skin, blond hair and blue eyes. Sometimes she had crazy dreams of having a child who looked just like him. The house’s cleanliness and soft, rug-covered floors astonished her, and in America there was so much to eat! But she spoke no English and her employers no Spanish. In the morning, the wife would place food on the kitchen table and wave her arms at the stove; in the evening, Rosa would gesture at what she’d made. Silence, loneliness. She felt like a mute. The pay was $110 a week, and all of it went to Flori.

III. MIGUEL

Rosa’s current bosses aren’t just the wealthiest she’s ever had, but also the weirdest. Mr. Alan travels a lot, and Mrs. Laura spends long hours locked in her bedroom, often emerging with reddened eyes. Sometimes Mrs. Laura pulls apart a disposable diaper and leaves pieces deep in the kids’ closets, or flicks tiny paper balls into corners — “tests” to make sure ä the help is vacuuming properly. And Rosa is forbidden to take little Samara out of the house, ever; given the family’s position, kidnappers could be lurking. The lack of any break — not even a walk or a trip to the park with other nannies — can make her feel as if she’s going crazy.

In July, the family leaves to spend a week at their beach house. (They also own several other homes.) Because she’s on salary, it’s understood that Rosa will continue working while the children are gone. Daily she arrives to mop thousands of square feet of wood and marble floors, scrub the bathrooms, wash and iron Samara’s delicate clothes, then put them away in perfect, neat rows. “Make sure all the toys are wiped, then disinfected with alcohol,” her boss has instructed. She works steadily, the way Alma Luz taught her. There was a time she actually enjoyed cleaning, because she pretended that her employers’ houses were her own. She doesn’t have such fantasies anymore.

Eduardo’s still in jail. Rosa hasn’t said she’ll help but hasn’t said no, either. She’s struggling with a new source of anxiety: Miguel. Their neighborhood school is one of L.A. Unified’s factories, a place where 1,300 poor, Spanish-speaking kids jam into a year-round campus and more than a third of the teachers lack credentials. Miguel cries in the morning and says he doesn’t want to go, then brings home notes complaining that he’s been fighting. He has nightmares about bullies. One day he tells her that a bigger kid jumped him at recess, knocked him down, and he hit his head on the ground. “Mamí, they didn’t send me to the nurse or call you or do anything, and I just cried!”

“Look at this!” she demands of the school staff the next day, pointing to her son’s forehead, which has a huge, purple bump.

“Oh,” the woman behind the desk says blandly. “Well, we didn’t know.”

On Saturday, when she takes Miguel to a karate class at a nearby YMCA, she tells the story to another mother, a Salvadoran with whom she’s gotten friendly. The woman tells her about the Catholic school her own son attends.

“You need to consider your boy’s future,” she says, and the warning resonates. Alma Luz is illiterate, Flori nearly so. She herself never got past eighth grade. Her English is no good, she has no profession, she will always be poor. She can live with that, but there must be more for Miguel. She will make there be more.

Even with sliding-scale payments, the Catholic school costs a staggering $300 a month. If she enrolls her son, there’s no way at all she can help Eduardo.

**

Two years after Rosa arrived in America, Flori left her husband and moved the family to South-Central. “You can stay home; it’s my turn to work,” she told her daughter. Nights, she hustled drinks in a Compton bar, coming back late and dead drunk, sometimes with men following: “Florita! Come on, baby, sleep with me!” It was unendurable, so when a boy from back home became infatuated with Rosa and suggested they become novios and live together, she went with him.

The new life was all right at first. She found another live-in job and was gone a lot, and during weekends home her boyfriend, Carlos, was affectionate, even sweet. She hadn’t loved him, still didn’t, but felt increasingly attached. By their second year together, though, the macho culture she remembered from home reasserted itself. “Ohhh, she won’t let you!” taunted relatives when Carlos turned down liquor at parties. After a trip back to Guatemala for his father’s funeral, things got even worse.

“You don’t tell me what to do — I’m the man!” he shouted at her one night. Shop and prepare food! Iron shirts! Don’t even think of going out or looking at another man! When Carlos came home drunk at 2 a.m. and she balked at fixing his dinner, he hauled her out of bed by her hair.

It was a nightmare, but people repeat what they know, and she never thought of leaving. She wondered if a baby would help. Miguel was born in October 1994, shortly before her 22nd birthday, and afterward she and Carlos got married at a downtown chapel. She wore a long white dress, and loudspeakers blared “The Wedding March” over Broadway.

Neither the baby nor the wedding changed a thing.

**

On Friday night, Flori calls. “What are you doing tomorrow? I want to see you.” Rosa has shopping to do, laundry; her place is a mess. The last thing she wants is to spend the day in her mother’s bleak housing complex, where high gates protect tenants from the neighborhood and burglar bars guard them from each other. Flori’s separation from her husband was short-lived, and after they reconciled, she had yet another baby. Visits are excruciating, because the apartment is small and crowded, nobody’s working, and there’s no money to do anything but sit around and watch TV. But her mother gets angry if she stays away, and Rosa feels sorry for her; she has so little. Sometimes Rosa manages to slip her $50.

Eduardo has been moved, Flori tells her, to a jail far from La Piedra. Neither his uncle nor grandmother can visit him now, so he’s all alone,pobrecito.

“Please,” Rosa says. “I’m thinking about it.” The application to the Catholic school is at home, on her dining-room table.

**

Three years doing child care in Mar Vista. Eight months in Encino. Three years in Silver Lake. Eighteen months in Calabasas, Miguel sharing strollers with other women’s children. Rosa learned the intricacies of Anglo child-rearing, about “time out,” sunscreen, how weirdly agitated some women got if you gave their kids a Coke. She struck up deep if transient friendships with the other sitters she met on suburban streets, the first girlfriends she’d had since La Piedra. No longer the timid newcomer, she easily navigated L.A. — the Chinatown butcher shops that sold fresh chicken, the garment district, La Placita. Through Carlos’ job as a maintenance worker, they lucked into a reduced-rate apartment in an immaculately kept Valley complex with tennis courts, Jacuzzi and heated pool. It was a huge step up from the series of noisy, airless Hollywood duplexes they’d shared before, and compared to Alma Luz’s champa . . . not even the same universe.

But the violence at home continued, and the strain showed. Rosa was heavier than before, and her face had the sad dullness of a woman half a century older. “Throw that husband in the garbage!” advised a sitter friend. For the first time, she seriously considered divorce, but how could she survive financially? And each time she started to get ahead, there was another call from Flori.

Alma Luz needed a new stove. A store in Pico-Union would ship goods to Mexico and Central America, while relatives in America paid, on time. Payments over 18 months came to $1,400. Her tío in La Piedra had broken his leg and couldn’t work or feed his kids: $100. Alma Luz, already blind in one eye, was losing the other to a cataract, and U.S. doctors were far more likely to save it. Plane tickets for abuelita, someone to accompany her, rental of a truck and driver to bring them to the capital, a share of the operation itself: $1,200.

Rosa knew her mother called because Flori saw her daughter as someone who’d succeeded in America in a way she never would. Nearly 20 years in this country, and Flori still spoke no English. Still couldn’t drive, still was a woman to whom life just happened. She was chained to her ghetto apartment, her debts, her abusive husband. And Rosa remembered the grim misery of La Piedra.

But what none of her family understood, Rosa thought, was how much her successful life was a mirage. At any moment, she could be fired without warning — she’d seen it happen to sitters before. Her health problems could flare beyond the reach of painkillers or antibiotics. One hospitalization, car accident, malicious boss or missing paycheck, and everything would dissolve.

In 1999, there was a new crisis. Half-sister Cristina, now 20, was following the family tradition by moving in with a man who beat her. She had to be rescued, brought to America immediately. Since Flori had taken a job in a furniture factory several months earlier, and could contribute to the effort, Rosa agreed to help. Cristina set out toward Mexico and beyond. Two weeks later, Flori called to say she had quit her job, because she was pregnant again. She was 43.

Rosa was stunned, infuriated, desperate. Once again, she would be doing it all herself. In the end, the transportation, food and coyote fees she laid out for Cristina came to $4,000. She owed everyone she knew. Her sister arrived, settled in, got a job and used the money she made to buy cosmetics and clothes. Flori had the baby; of course there was no way she could work. Something inside Rosa began to harden. The ugly truth, she thought, was that her family didn’t care. Her mother didn’t love her, not the way she loved the children she was rearing now, who’d been with her since birth. Rosa was sick to death of giving, and getting nothing in return. Of feeling like a machine, with someone else at the controls.

When Rosa learned that Carlos was having an affair with a young woman she’d considered a friend, she threw his things out of the apartment. He came back, pleading, then cursing and pulling back his fist. “Call 911!” she screamed to Miguel. Despite Carlos’ arrest, a restraining order and anger-management classes, he kept coming around, alternately begging her to come back and calling her “puta.” She didn’t phone the cops, but also didn’t give in, though she’d never been alone before and sometimes could barely breathe with panic.

One day, while Miguel was practicing karate at the YMCA, she took an exercise class. It helped her sleep. She started to work out, hard and often. It felt good to be strong. At the Y, she met a man, an American. He was sweet, funny and affectionate. After they started dating, sometimes he cooked her dinner or rubbed her neck if she was tired. He played with Miguel. He had no interest in having her iron his shirts. No one had treated her like that, ever, and it was like a stunning gift. Her feeling for Carlos faded until there was nothing left.

IV: ROSA

Her bosses return from vacation, and Rosa is finding it harder to be docile and polite. These people understand nothing. The food they throw out each day — back in Guatemala, how desperately she’d craved just the smallest bit of chicken or meat. How many kids back home are still that hungry? Every week the house is full of expensive new fresh flower arrangements, each worth maybe $150 — money wasted, money that could buy Rosa health care, could win Eduardo his freedom. It’s madness. Meanwhile, their bizarre unhappiness, their demands! Fifteen, 20 minutes tacked on the end of every workday; no extra pay. Please, Rosa, the baby’s nanny has quit, I really need you to help out . . . Another child in her arms, more cleaning, not a penny more. She needs this paycheck, but she’s not their burro. One day her boss’s secretary comes into the laundry room to give her a chore while she’s eating lunch. “I get a half-hour for lunch. I’ll do it when I’m done,” she says.

Flori calls, demanding a visit. Inside Rosa’s head, a voice says “no más.” “I’m tired,” she tells her mother flatly, ignoring her tears. “I love you, Mamí, but leave me alone.

Carlos has taken to calling on the cell phone all night. She doesn’t answer. That month, she doesn’t send Alma Luz any money. She feels bad about it, but other things come first. She must buy books, shoes, a uniform. She’s enrolled Miguel in the Catholic school.

Flori calls again. Like a miracle, she tells Rosa, some kind of public defender has taken Eduardo’s case. The family accusing him failed to provide any evidence of his guilt, so he was set free. The bad news is that the next day, in La Piedra, two armed men tried to kidnap his 16-year-old cousin. “Eduardo didn’t pay, so you will!” they told her. She escaped, but now the whole family’s terrified. They’ve got to get out of town, which will cost money. Alma Luz is too old to go, and without relatives nearby to help her, she’ll need to hire someone to cook and clean. That will take money, too . . .

Nothing will ever change. Everything has. Rosa shakes her head. The answer is no.

V: EPILOGUE

Maybe it was because she got too uppity. Maybe it always was the plan. In the fall, Rosa’s bosses tell her that another sitter, who was away on maternity leave, has decided to return. They now want Rosa to work noon to 9 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday. Miguel makes that impossible, and they know it. If Rosa resigns, she won’t be eligible for unemployment money. Just when her uncertainty and terror are at their peak, the mother of Miguel’s Salvadoran karate friend hires her to help care for her husband, permanently disabled from an industrial accident.

Rosa’s new romance becomes a steady relationship, though it has its problems, with a future that remains unclear. She continues to work out, her body turning sleek and muscular, like that of an L.A. beach girl. She passes the Y’s exam and becomes a part-time aerobics instructor, something so far from her life in La Piedra that she can hardly believe it: Alma Luz’s scared little girl in front of a sweating crowd, screaming, “Kick! Kick!”

In Guatemala, Alma Luz lives on. In South-Central, half-sister Cristina, then mother Flori, find Jesus and become Evangelical Christians. When Flori, rapidly aging from the stress of caring for her late-life son, intones, “Díos es amor,” Rosa rolls her eyes. God won’t solve her mother’s problems, she thinks, but a job might.

From his new apartment, Carlos continues to call, wheedle and curse. Rosa’s found a lawyer willing to do a favor, though, and has filed for divorce and child support. Miguel, who now goes by the name Mike, loves his new school, but is struggling with the work, and suffers from the stress of continued fighting between his parents.

Stories of desperation in 21st-century L.A. rarely come with simple, happy endings, because even in fairy tales, those endings require money. Rosa teaches her aerobics classes in exchange for Miguel’s Y membership. Her new full-time job pays $10 an hour, no benefits, and although her bosses, made wealthy by the husband’s personal-injury settlement, are kind and generous in other ways, Rosa still can’t pay her bills. There still are nights she can’t sleep, and during them, the future seems hopeless. She can’t get a better job without more education, but where will she find time for school? She can’t put in more hours and still care for Miguel. She doesn’t know how much longer it will be before her untreated kidney and back problems become so serious she can’t do anything. And increasingly, as she watches Miguel grow up, with love, schooling, karate, play dates and toys — the security she works so hard to provide — she finds ugly memories surfacing from her own childhood.

Two a.m. Three. In the morning, when the alarm rings, she gets up and goes to work.

The Veterinarian Brings His Healing Presence to Pets of the Unhoused

 

 

The man standing outside the tent on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles clearly doesn’t live in the neighborhood. Tall and fit, he’s dressed in jeans and a doctor’s blue scrub shirt and carries a medical bag. The tent, one of many rough structures on the stained sidewalk, sits amid heaped wooden pallets, old furniture and trash. But the man’s eyes are fixed on the dog lounging nearby.

“Hi, how are you?” he says when the tent flap opens. “I’m a veterinarian, Dr. Kwane Stewart, and I offer free pet care to people experiencing homelessness.” He gestures at the dog. “Can I examine your pet?” 

First comes confused silence—you’re who?—then suspicion: Is this animal control, here to take my dog? Finally, a slow nod. Stewart, who calls himself the Street Vet, kneels, pulls out his stethoscope and goes to work.

These Skid Row streets hold the nation’s largest concentration of homeless people who are not staying in a shelter, and at first glance it’s an unrelieved landscape of despair: mental illness, poverty, addiction. But love exists, too, including the love of pets. Across the nation, 10 to 25 percent of the people who are homeless keep pets, and there’s no reason to think the number is lower in sunny Los Angeles. Cats sit on sleeping bags, pit bulls, scruffy terriers and mutts trot alongside filled shopping carts, and chihuahuas ride in bicycle baskets and the laps of people who themselves are in wheelchairs. Various local groups and volunteers help the owners of these animals care for them, with weekly and monthly clinics, mobile spay and neuter vans, handouts of flea meds and food. 

Stewart, 50, has usually worked solo, walking the streets and looking for animals and people in need. “Maybe it’s because when I began this work, it wasn’t uncommon to find a pet that had never received care,” he says. “Everyone I met looked at me as if I’d just dropped out of the sky.”

Stewart grew up with dogs, loved them and science, and by the time he was 10 knew he would become a veterinarian. It was an unusual ambition for a Black track star in Albuquerque. Once, a coach asked about his future plans and laughed with disbelief when Kwane told him. “I’ve never met a Black vet,” the coach said. Stewart goes on, “At the time I didn’t think much about it. But here’s the thing: He was Black himself.” Decades later the number of African American veterinarians is still so small the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that it might as well be zero. 

Stewart graduated from the University of New Mexico, got his DVM degree from Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and headed to San Diego. He spent a decade there treating a suburban clientele with “bottomless bank accounts.” Then, in 2008, he relocated to Modesto, in California’s Central Valley, for a job as the veterinarian for Stanislaus County. And everything changed. 

The Great Recession flattened Modesto, a city of around 200,000, with plummeting home prices and 17 percent unemployment. And when humans go broke, animals often pay the price. Pet surrenders surged until the area’s aging shelter, built for 200 animals, held twice as many, and its euthanasia rate became one of the nation’s highest.

“I was destroying 30 to 50 animals every morning,” Stewart says softly. “Healthy dogs and cats. It was killing my soul. I felt like God was keeping score and I was losing. I didn’t go to school all those years to destroy animals. I wanted to help and save them.”

At first that meant he helped a homeless man he encountered almost daily by treating the man’s dog, which suffered from a bad flea bite allergy. Then he held a free clinic at a local soup kitchen. And then, on his own time, he began to walk around Modesto and some Bay Area sites looking for pets to help. He moved to Los Angeles to serve as chief veterinary officer for the American Humane Association, which makes sure animals are treated well on film sets, and his ramblings shifted to San Diego and Los Angeles. He wore scrubs to identify himself, carried a bag filled with meds, vaccines and syringes, nail trimmers, and he did what he could, free of charge. 

He was stunned by what he found. Like many people, he questioned why homeless people had animals to begin with—if humans couldn’t take care of themselves, how could they be responsible for pets? And yet they were. In fact, numerous academic studies over the years have revealed the vital role pets play in the lives of unhoused men and women—providing structure, purpose, meaning and love. “Researchers have consistently found very high levels of attachments to pets among the homeless,” Leslie Irvine, a sociologist, writes in her 2012 book about the phenomenon, My Dog Always Eats First.

Stewart agrees. “Pets were a lifeline to the people I met,” he says. “Most of them were great pet owners. They did remarkably well with the resources they had, and made sacrifices for them well beyond what you or I would. The bond between them was on a completely different level. They needed each other.”

 

For five years, his efforts were a kind of secret hobby that he says even his family—he has three children—didn’t know about. Then, in 2017, he and his brother, Ian, produced “The Street Vet” as a reality TV series­—it has aired on broadcast TV in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe and in the States on a Utah cable channel­—and Stewart acknowledges he’s now a “media personality.” These days he’s founding a new veterinary practice in San Diego and writing a book about his experiences on the street.

Last September he started a nonprofit, Project StreetVet, raising money on GoFundMe to cover the cost of treating pet medical problems beyond the scope of a sidewalk exam. He has occasionally volunteered with larger organizations assisting people who are homeless. Though he says “there are probably more efficient ways I could spend my time,” he likes doing it his way. 

“The wound is healing well,” he reassures a man named Ben, whose pet rat had been attacked by a cat. (“I’ve seen birds and snakes, but this was my first rat.”)

“The puppies look great,” he tells Julian, a tattooed man who has lived on the same stretch of pavement for two years and whose dog recently gave birth. (He also vaccinates the pups.) 

Stewart marvels at the generosity of a young man named Reggie, who lives in a school bus and uses his own cash to make lemonade that he gives away to his neighbors. Stewart vaccinates the man’s dog, Daisy. “You’re doing a good job,” Stewart says.

“Oh, this is such a blessing,” the young man replies. 

Most Americans Have Pets. Almost One Third Can’t Afford Their Vet Care

Since mid-2020, more than a thousand low-income families have brought their sick and suffering pets to the nonprofit Pet Support Space, housed in a tiny Los Angeles storefront. One 14-year-old dog had a tumor that a veterinarian had quoted $5,000 to remove. A four-year-old pit bull had been vomiting for days, a cat’s painful bladder stones required surgery, a pug limped from the foxtail embedded in its paw. Skin and ear infections abounded. Neither the animals’ problems nor their owners’ inability to afford help for them was a surprise.

recent nationwide study found almost 28 percent of households with pets experienced barriers to veterinary care, with finances being the most common reason. In low-income households, the researchers found, financial and housing insecurity can increase the risks that animals will not receive the care they need. Sociologist Arnold Arluke, author of Underdogs: Pets, People and Poverty estimates that 66 percent of pets in poverty have never seen a vet at all.

The “why” behind those numbers is complex. Of course, money is the primary problem. Veterinary care is expensive. A majority of practitioners work in for-profit clinics, consolidation in the industry has increased emphasis on profit margins, and vet prices have risen faster than the overall rate of inflation. That has checkups starting at $50, dental cleaning going for $70-$400, and blood work and x-rays at $80-$250. If a dog breaks a leg or eats a sock, surgery costs begin at four figures.

High prices aren’t necessarily about greed. Michael Blackwell, a former Deputy Director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine at the FDA, is the chair of the Access to Veterinary Care Coalition (AVCC) that was formed in 2016 to study this very problem. Veterinary training, he said, teaches vets to practice a “gold standard” of care, which means running every possible diagnostic test and pursuing every treatment option, even when a client’s budget is limited. (Many pet owners don’t know they can decline a recommended procedure, such as blood work, and even fewer are willing to decline care for fear of looking heartless.)

Some private vets offer struggling clients discounts, added Jeremy Prupas, DVM, Chief Veterinarian for the City of Los Angeles, but they themselves carry an average of $150,000 in student loan debt, so they simply “can’t carry the immense existing need on their own.” Telling clients you can’t help them because they have no money is one of the leading causes of burnout in the veterinary profession, according to Prupas. Pet insurance might help defray costs but requires monthly premiums and comes with such a complicated array of deductibles, co-pays, caps, and exclusions that one how-to guide recommends hiring an attorney to review the policy. Credit cards designed for medical care financing, if one can qualify, can carry punishing interest rates as high as 26.99 percent.

Equally critical is a long-term failure on the part of the animal welfare movement to consider, much less prioritize, the needs of low-income pet owners. Since the 1990s, the rescue/humane world has poured vast amounts of funding and energy into cutting shelter euthanasia through adoption, but far less into helping those without money take care of the pets they have. “If you can’t afford an animal,” the thinking went, “then you shouldn’t have one.”

“Until recently, we focused on shelter-centric challenges,” acknowledged Amanda Arrington, senior director of the Humane Society of the United States’s Pets for Life Program, which assists low-income pet owners. “There was a lot of judgment and making determinations on who was or wasn’t deserving of support and resources that was influenced by what I think a lot of society is influenced by, which is classism and racism. We conflated a lack of financial means and access with how much someone loves their pet or desires to care for it.”

In fact, owners can be punished because they can’t afford veterinary care — “most humane neglect cases stem from an inability to get care for a pet,” said Prupas. In Michigan, for example, failing to provide an animal with adequate care, including medical attention, is a misdemeanor that can carry 93 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. With a second violation, it becomes a felony.

The distorted belief that ‘those people’ don’t care about their pets has never been true.

What exists for pet owners in poverty is a patchwork of low-cost care options, ranging from local efforts — such as Emancipet in Texas and the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society — to well-funded national enterprises such as Pets for Life, which operates in several dozen cities. The great majority, however, offer only basic services like sterilization, vaccination, and flea treatments. “We are not a full-service veterinary clinic and do not treat sick or injured pets,” warns one low-cost option on its website. Another suggests that needy people travel, since “vets in smaller towns may charge lower fees,” or start a GoFundMe. As a result, many types of care are largely unavailable: emergency care (by some estimates one in three pets will have an emergency need each year), management of chronic conditions such as diabetes or kidney disease, medication, dental care (dental disease affects perhaps 80 percent of older dogs), and the mercy of humane euthanasia (which can run $50-$300).

The final piece of the care gap is a practical and cultural disconnect. Because many economically challenged neighborhoods are “vet deserts,” with few if any practitioners, it’s not easy to find care, and reaching it can require wrangling an unhappy animal over distance and/or arranging private transportation. Keeping an appointment at an office with weekday-only business hours or a once a month clinic can mean losing a day’s pay. Paperwork raises the fear of immigration status inquiries. The veterinary profession also remains one of the country’s whitest: Just as people who feel alienated or unwelcome don’t utilize human health care options, pointed out Arluke, they don’t utilize care for their pets.

The result has been suffering: most directly for animals that remain untreated, die from what vets call “economic euthanasia” (putting an animal down because treatment costs too much), or end up in shelters. Fear of a looming vet bill, and the mistaken belief that all shelter animals receive medical care, is a prime cause of owner surrender.

But people pay, too.

Some sick animals can infect their humans. Roundworms, for example, can pass through contact with pet feces and cause lung, heart, and eye problems. Blackwell reports meeting an optometrist who practices in a low-income Florida community who has seen increasing numbers of children with roundworm larvae in their eyes.

The psychic toll is just as real. Families in poverty who love their pets and for whom “they offer an emotional core and possibly one of the only sources of joy” face “mental and emotional” devastation from the unimaginable choice of weighing that love against potential financial ruin, said Blackwell. Professor Katja M. Guenther, author of The Lives and Deaths of Shelter Animals, called the rupture of an animal-human bond “a kind of community violence” in a 2021 webinar.

Change seems increasingly possible. Covid-19 and the country’s recent racial and economic reckoning has prompted humane organizations to examine their assumptions and biases about who has the “right” to a pet’s love, and, said Arrington, there’s increasing recognition that “racial and economic injustice really impacts animal welfare.” Meanwhile, AlignCare, a new program out of Michael Blackwell’s Program for Pet Health Equity, is trying to create a national model of something like Medicaid for domestic animals. Under the program, families already found to be struggling (because they participate in SNAP or a similar program) and who ask for help at a shelter or veterinary clinic will be signed up and paired with a veterinary social worker or support coordinator. They’ll then be directed to a veterinarian who has agreed to offer preventative, dental, and even critical care, for a reduced fee; AlignCare will pay 80 percent of the cost. After three years of pilot programs in 10 disparate communities, it’s taking on its biggest challenge yet, Los Angeles, where one in five people live in poverty.

AlignCare won’t offer “gold standard” care, instead emphasizing preventative, incremental, and cost-saving measures (such as offering telehealth appointments and limiting diagnostics that won’t change treatment options) when possible. But it will expand the human safety net to include the animals most of us now consider part of our families. And while the effort is currently funded by grants from Maddie’s Fund, the Duffield Foundation, and Petsmart Charities, Blackwell’s goal is “community ownership:” The combined involvement of local vets, city animal services departments, social service agencies, rescue and community organizations, pet food and product manufacturers, and affluent pet owner-donors can make the model self-sustaining.

There is no perfect solution for low-income pet owners who need help accessing veterinary care. But growing awareness of the problem is a big step forward. “What we call ‘animal welfare’ is changing,” said Lori Weise, whose nonprofit, Downtown Dog Rescue, runs the Pet Support Space. “The distorted belief that ‘those people’ don’t care about their pets has never been true. People can’t afford care. Sometimes they don’t even know what’s out there; they themselves have never been in a hospital. As more people are brought into the system, we’ll see the first generation to get proper veterinary care.”

 

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