The Middlebrook Mobile Home Park near Rockville Pike.
There are cracks in the glass door of Pedro and Laura’s apartment building in Gaithersburg. The cinder-block walls and linoleum floor in the hallway look like those in a school cafeteria. The rent for their two-bedroom apartment is $1,200 a month. Others pay less: Neighbors tell Laura the landlord charges $300 more if you’re undocumented, which she and Pedro are. It may be unfair, but it’s not illegal.
On the wall above the dining table are streamers left over from daughter Isis’s third-birthday celebration. Laura and her older daughter, Ingrid, went to a dollar store and found birthday decorations and animal stickers. Ingrid was giggly all day. Pedro, who prepares meat and vegetables at a deli, brought home a cake with fruit on it, and the family took pictures of Isis blowing out her candles.
Warner met the Salvadoran couple in the fall of 2009 after a colleague from the Neighbors Campaign—a joint project between county government and nonprofits including Family Services, Catholic Charities, and Impact Silver Spring—knocked on their door. He was struck by the way they looked at each other. Laura described her husband as an honorable man who valued family over everything else.
I can only hope my wife says those things about me, Warner thought.
The Neighbors Campaign—now the Neighborhood Opportunity Network—was formed two years ago after county leaders realized that lots of the people in need weren’t getting help. Some didn’t know how to apply for temporary cash assistance; others didn’t know they could see a doctor even if they didn’t have health insurance.
“If I had to be poor someplace in America, this would be it,” Warner says. “The resources are there—finding them is another thing.”
Aside from pointing low-income residents to services they might not know about, the network tries to bring strangers together to see how they can help one another. Maybe there’s a woman on the third floor who runs a low-cost daycare service and a mother upstairs who needs it. Maybe there’s a guy who’s great at installing cabinets but can’t find work and someone living next door who needs a reliable carpenter. If they never meet, Warner says, they’ll never know.
For Laura and Pedro, the knock on the door was a welcome one. They’d come to America three years earlier from a place where they passed bodies in the street. The government didn’t give out food stamps, they say—people died of hunger. The civil war was over, but the violence had escalated. Laura knew of a woman whose daughter had been snatched from her arms and murdered by gangsters who wanted money.
Before they left El Salvador, she and Pedro asked God for one thing: to take them somewhere they could live a calm life.
A recent Brookings study found that the number of poor people living in suburbs increased by 37 percent between 2000 and 2009.
“These trends were in place even before the great recession,” says Elizabeth Kneebone, a researcher at Brookings’s Metropolitan Policy Program.
Montgomery County saw its poor population during that time increase from 47,024 to 65,286. The number of people living in poverty in Fairfax County rose from 43,396 to 57,890; in Loudoun County, the number doubled from 4,637 to 9,281.
One reason is that more immigrants are arriving in this country poor and staying that way. When Laura applied for Medicaid benefits for Isis, who was born in the United States, the woman helping her asked to see more paperwork because she couldn’t believe a family of five was surviving on so little money. About 30 percent of the population in Montgomery County is foreign-born, including an estimated 35,000 from El Salvador. Maryland has the fourth-largest population of Salvadorans in the United States.
“The immigrant community in this region really started in the heart of DC—Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights,” says BB Otero, president of CentroNia, a DC-based educational organization that’s expanded its services to Montgomery County. Once those families got settled—saved money, found jobs, learned the language—they moved to the suburbs in search of more affordable housing and better schools. Friends and relatives followed. “The next wave came directly to the suburbs. They didn’t have to pass through the central city.”
When Tim Warner was asked to work on the staff of the county executive three years ago, more than 55,000 people were living below the federal poverty line. Tens of thousands more couldn’t meet the county’s standard for self-sufficiency. The county was facing a $200-million budget shortfall. The nonprofits that were there to help were struggling.
“There just wasn’t enough money to deal with this upswing in requests for emergency services,” Warner says. “So we got together and said, ‘What can we do creatively to deal with this?’ ”
He helped open three neighborhood service centers in parts of the county that needed the most help: Gaithersburg, Wheaton, and the Long Branch area of Silver Spring. Then they paired up—a Spanish speaker and an English speaker, when possible—and started knocking on doors, often involving church groups in the effort.
Warner has had doors slam in his face. He understands why it’s hard for people to believe he’s not selling anything. He realizes that when a woman looks through the peephole and sees a six-foot-six stranger staring back at her, she may not answer. But most people do open the door: Since 2009, Warner, his colleagues from Impact Silver Spring, and volunteers have knocked on 11,800 doors and had conversations with 2,900 people from 78 countries, many of whom might otherwise have never sought help.
“We’re very good at giving clothes away and feeding people when we have extra stuff to give,” he says. “What we’re not good at is asking those people, ‘Why do you need food in the first place?’ ”
Next: The daily life of the immigrant poor.