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Not Out of the Woods Yet

GA checks and food stamps either make or break ABAWDs

By Traci Hukill

CHRIS MAYO'S ONLY 42, but his hands look 30 years older. They're swollen, discolored by years of sun and mottled at the wrists with a bright blue web of broken veins--testimony, explains the native Tennessean, to his angina, a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit, and a lifetime of hard living that at various times has included heroin addiction and nightly dates with a fifth of Old Charter.

Listening to Mayo now it's hard to imagine those days. Since his arrival in Santa Cruz this past April he's quit drinking, cut back his smoking to half a pack a day and joined the Seventh Day Adventists. Heroin he kicked years ago with the help of his wife, a nurse. Now sober, blessed with a new outlook on life, and dressed carefully in a striped shirt and clean jeans, he's also homeless, three time zones away from his estranged wife and teenage children and about to lose half his monthly income of $248.

"Yes, I am worried about it," he says seriously in a soft mountain twang . "If I lost my food stamps I'd have to use my GA [General Assistance] to eat. That's about four dollars a day. A bus pass costs three dollars, so there you go."

Mayo receives $128 each month in GA and $120 in food stamps. He will soon exhaust the three months' worth of food stamps allotted to him under reformed welfare guidelines, and it will be three years before he can collect them again.

Able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs in social services parlance) are targeted by the new eligibility laws. Under the new policy, most ABAWDs can collect food stamps only three out of 36 months.

Mayo, who's of average height, with hazel eyes and a neat, graying beard, speaks deliberately and without self-pity about his predicament. "I try to find work, but I haven't been very successful," he says. "One-fifteen Coral [the Santa Cruz shelter] is a known address, and people shy away when they see that. I do know how to cook, but I have hepatitis C, so no restaurant will hire me."

Back in Nashville, Mayo had a tree-trimming service until a 55-foot plunge from a Chinese elm last July laid him up with multiple breaks of his ribs, arms and legs. Now saddled with a heart condition and armed with only a ninth-grade education, Mayo just hopes his doctor will determine he's disabled so he can keep getting food stamps. His appointment is on the last day of July.

"This is either gonna make me or break me, you know what I mean?" he says.

A freckle-faced redheaded kid who looks about 16 has been waiting nearby anxiously, skateboard in hand.

"You almost done, Pa?" he asks, jittery.

"Be with you in a minute, Red," Mayo answers quietly. "They call me Pa," he says, turning back to a visitor, "I guess 'cause I'm the elder of the camp."

Until he became too ill to make the three-mile uphill trek, Mayo lived in the woods in a camp that is home to many of Santa Cruz's teenage homeless population: the runaways. There, he says, he tried to stretch out his food stamps and GA allowance to feed groups of two to six teenagers--kids too young to get food stamps themselves.

"There's a whole big picture to this," he observes thoughtfully, watching the morning activity at the Homeless Community Resource Center. "Me, I'm just a little speck in the corner."

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From the July 31-Aug. 6, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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