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Susan Brzovich
Age: 60
City: Prunedale, Monterey County
Race/Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Paraprofessional educator

Susan lost two of her three jobs at the start of California’s shelter-in-place order. She is just barely scraping by each month. Still, this once-homeless single mother says she feels rich compared to what she once had.

Jan. 20, 2021

In her words

We went really simple for Christmas. My son said, “Mom, what do you want for Christmas?” I said, “Nothing. Maybe candles, in case we don’t have electricity.” There was nothing, and that was the simplest Christmas we did. It wasn’t lonely. We had each other and it was sunny.

We live simple. Even getting our groceries together. One moment we’ll concentrate on the paper goods, the next (something else). Learning to flow with all this, the COVID.

I don’t know (what else). Really thinking about what you use, maybe. I used to buy milk every month and at the end of the month I would throw half of it out. Just spending your money wisely. From the end of the bread to the eggshells and coffee grounds: there’s always a purpose for everything.

I’ve requested to do my job from home, because gas costs money. And my car, I keep putting (back) together. I hope this goes through. That will save $20 every week. It takes longer having the courage to tell my job I’m sort of a hot mess inside, and in order to be balanced, I’d like to work from home.

The best place I feel is home.

Dec. 6, 2020

Susan Brzovich’s bank account dipped down to $4 and she wouldn’t get paid for more than another week.

Brzovich, a classroom aid at Monterey County’s North County Middle School, lost two of her three jobs with the start of the shelter-in-place orders. 

She now brings in $1,700 a month, which just covers her $1,300 rent plus utilities and other essentials. Her landlord raised her rent $100 last month, and it’s getting harder and harder to cover. 

Despite that, Brzovich feels rich, she said, when she thinks about just how much she has compared to only 10 years ago.

In 2009, Brzovich’s husband left her in the midst of her son Jake’s substance abuse and addiction. “It broke up my family,” she said. It also left her and her youngest son, Max, homeless.

They moved from friend’s home to friend’s home for about two years before they found the homey two-bedroom granny unit they now rent in Royal Oaks. She never missed a day of work, she said, never told her colleagues that she was heading to school straight from divorce court, while at night she slept on the floor of someone else’s house. 

“How would they react?” she asked. “Sorry I was a few minutes late to your class, I’m homeless?” 

She laughed deeply, the sound coming from her gut and relief coloring her voice. A moment later she quieted, thoughtful. 

After her divorce Brzovich worked multiple jobs. In addition to her work as a classroom aid she helped run the after-school program and house-sat a couple times a month to make ends meet. 

“You would think, ‘Gosh, I don’t have enough gas,’ and some small job would open up,” Brzovich said.

Brzovich and Max, now 23, had been making it by until the pandemic hit. Then, she lost two of her jobs when the after-school program changed its hours and people stopped traveling.

“I’m down to one paycheck,” said Brzovich. “I never realized how much I worked until I didn’t work. I’ve lived here for eight years, but I never unpacked.”

Brzovich decorated her home in potted plants, framed photos and knicknacks. Angel figurines she inherited from her mother are placed cozily in the bathroom, candles warm the living room and a Charlie Brown Christmas scene greets visitors at the front door.

She’s clever with her money, taking advantage of deals and sales and giveaways, and her son, who works at Safeway, helps when he can by bringing home groceries with his employee discount. But still, they have had to prioritize purchases even more so with her income dipping.

The stimulus check helped, she said, but it didn’t cover all her lost income over the months. So she began visiting food bank giveaways, which she had always resisted doing. 

She’s taken to sharing the extras with her friends and neighbors she knows are having a tough time, too — giving away snap-pea chips and red bell peppers, freezing grapes and baking with the boxes and boxes of blackberries she finds in the bags she brings home.

With them, she made blackberry and apple pie, and blackberry and cranberry relish for Thanksgiving. 

Her son brought home a turkey he bought for $7, and side dishes like sweet potatoes and butternut squash. He even bought some toilet paper, which has been scarce on shelves again since the latest wave of COVID-19 cases prompted a curfew by Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

Still, she said, when her son comes home wondering how they are going to get by, she reminds him that they are doing fine. 

“Let me show you how rich we are,” she told him. “We have a new pack of toilet paper, and I just found 12 more rolls.”

For Brzovich, it’s about turning to something bigger than herself.

Brzovich likes to get up between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. and sit outside, watching the moon rise over the hills northeast of Monterey Bay, and taking in the nature around her. She listens to the owls call, then the frogs respond. Sometimes she spots a coyote fleeting through the brush among the eucalyptus stumps that rise behind her house. 

She makes wishes on shooting stars, asking for peace, for the strength to continue. 

She used to stand all those hours, but now she sits. “You get dizzy,” she said, “watching the sky.”

How are you getting through each month on rent?

We invite you to share your story here.

This project is part of California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.

Staying Sheltered

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Kate Cimini is a reporter with the Salinas Californian and CalMatters' California Divide project. She covers economic inequality, agriculture, and housing. Previously, she covered national security, natural...