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Poverty in Montgomery County: Out from the Shadows
Comments () | Published May 16, 2011

From their apartment, Laura and her daughter can see life at the luxury units across the street.

The new luxury apartments across the street from Laura and Pedro’s building rent for up to $2,600 a month. They don’t bother Laura—anywhere you go, she says, you’ll find people who have more than you do—but they bother Warner.

“This monstrosity in front of you used to be one huge low-income apartment complex,” he says, crossing Route 355 in Gaithersburg in his 2001 Toyota Avalon. “These new units can’t be afforded by the people who used to live here. We’ve displaced them and priced them out.”

He’s curious about what happened to those people. They were the working poor, he says, mostly Latinos living from paycheck to paycheck. “Imagine someone who’s lived in these apartments for a dozen years and suddenly somebody’s making the decision that they’re going to tear them all down,” he says. “What do you do?”

It’s families like Laura and Pedro’s that Warner finds himself worrying about the most. The first time they tried to pay income taxes—undocumented immigrants are expected to file and can do so using an alternate identification number—they paid someone $200 to help them; the woman never mailed their paperwork. Pedro pays taxes because of something he read in the Bible: Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But it took him two years, on a payment plan, to pay off the money he owed the government after he was scammed.

The couple share a bedroom with their two daughters. Isis sleeps with them; Ingrid has a mattress a few feet away. The sheets and pillowcases don’t match. The wall is bare except for a small framed picture of Tinkerbell.

Pedro recently picked up a second job at a pizza place. He finishes at the deli around 5, goes home to see his kids and change clothes, and leaves about half an hour later. He tries not to work on Sundays, but he won’t say no: “If our family can get a check, I’m not going to let it escape.” Sundays are the day Laura makes a traditional Salvadoran breakfast—eggs, beans, cheese, bread—and they all eat together at the kitchen table. The kids want him to take them to the beach one weekend, but Pedro isn’t sure it’s safe. He’s heard about people getting stopped in Annapolis and asked for their immigration papers. All it would take is one day of bad luck.

Laura is trained to care for infants but can’t find permanent work because she doesn’t have a Social Security number. She has trouble keeping up with her kids’ schoolwork because she doesn’t know enough English.

Still, she says, it’s better than the alternative. Back in El Salvador, she always had to wonder if the police were really criminals. She never felt safe. When she returned home to see a doctor a few months after moving to America, she had a mild heart attack on the plane and had to be rushed by ambulance to the capital city, San Salvador, where she spent seven days. She’d had heart arrhythmias before but had never been properly diagnosed.

“When I was recovering, I had a tragedy happen, something that happens a lot in El Salvador,” Laura says during a conversation at her kitchen table. Pedro asks his older daughter to take the little one into the other room. “It’s something we have a hard time talking about.”

 

Warner got angry at himself for not knowing what brought Pedro and Laura to America—that they came to save their son—or that the couple went through something so horrific they can’t tell him about it.

He’s known them more than a year and spent a weekend with them at a neighbors’ retreat. He should have made learning Spanish a priority, he says. He should have asked more questions.

“I’ve carried a lot of burdens that didn’t belong to me,” he says. “Why not that one?”

One of the toughest things about his job is knowing when to let something go: “I’ll be praying about Laura and Pedro tonight,” he says. “If God wants me to do something, I’ll know about it.”

When he gets home at night, he tries not to talk about work. He kisses his wife, Paula, an administrator at Stone Ridge School in Bethesda, and eats dinner. He turns on a crime show or a National Geographic Channel show about prisons. Prison work is his passion. Every summer, he runs a one-week camp for children whose parents are incarcerated. On his wall at work, he has a four-by-four-foot picture of Martin Luther King Jr. that was sketched by an inmate at the county jail.

“He did this freehand,” Warner says. The picture, done on six separate pieces of paper, was ready to be thrown out. Warner got hold of it and put it back together.

If he brought his job home, Warner says, he would always be thinking about the boy who came to a youth Bible-study group in Rockville’s Lincoln Park neighborhood a decade ago, got into a fight with another boy, and cursed Warner out. He saw that boy, now an inmate, when he was walking through the jail a few years ago.

“Remember me?” the young man yelled. “From Lincoln Park?” Warner sat in his car and cried, realizing he’d missed one.

Next: David Scull Courts is the only housing project left in Rockville.

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  • Lydia D. York

    Or, better yet - why don't you interview some of us residents about the negative health effects of living next to an industrial park ??!! Is there anyone with a REAL journalism degree there at Washingtonian Magazine? Or do you all just like making insulting, blanket statements about people you know NOTHING about ??!!

  • Lydia D. York

    I live in David Skull, and take offense at the stereotyping of the residents here. Most of us are hard-working and law-abiding. Maybe you should do a follow-up story about how Rockville Housing Enterprises routinely threatens and harasses us tenants to the point of submission; Taking money which is not legally owed them and retaliating against anyone who speaks out about their abuse of landlord/tenant law.

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