Season of Sharing helps struggling family with rent

Back before ride-hailing apps became all the rage, San Francisco cabdrivers could make a decent living, especially if they owned one of the 2,000 city-issued medallions.

The medallion allowed drivers to own their own cabs, which would mean higher incomes. A medallion was hard to get, so they were treasured, but Mike Mohamed Erakat never got his. He had applied for one in 1996 but was ultimately denied after what he described as a bureaucratic mix-up.

With his income dwindling, the advent of ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft provided the opportunity Erakat needed. He became a Lyft driver.

“We were making $300 to $400 a shift,” Erakat said, referring to his time as a cabbie. “My income went from where I was comfortable to zero.”

Driving for Lyft helped. But then health problems hit, and hard. Erakat, 48, has had two heart attacks, including one in October, along with a range of other medical issues, including a blockage in his left lung, that have left him unfit to work, all of his doctors said. An echocardiogram showed his heart operating at 20 to 25 percent, and Erakat is using a wearable defibrillator until Medi-Cal approves him for a pacemaker.

A new medication prescribed by his cardiologist was too expensive, Erakat’s insurance determined, so he is limited to using samples of the medication that his doctor’s office was able to provide.

But Erakat is still driving for Lyft as much as he can. He says he can’t afford not to.

“I was sick and tired — how did it happen? My health went downhill,” Erakat said. “I had a blockage in my lungs, anemia, high blood pressure. … Four specialists have told me I cannot work, but I have a family I have to feed. I’m out here, I don’t care. I have to show my landlord I’m doing something.”

Erakat moves slowly, stopping frequently to catch his breath, and he speaks with effort, but he’s determined to provide for his family — his wife, Mary, and two children, Sofo, 7, and Rita, 4.

He choked up a little talking about his kids, pausing before saying, “When your 4-year-old comes to you and says, ‘God will provide … ’ She calls me Mikey; she said, ‘Mikey, Allah will give you.’ She doesn’t want anything, she just wants me to feel better. They saw when I was sick all the machines, the nebulizer, the 23 bottles of medicine, they saw that every day.

“My son came to me and said, ‘I don’t want my iPad anymore, I don’t need it.’ These things just made me crazy. We’re talking about a 7-year-old saying he doesn’t need anything. I don’t have any money, but I want them to be comfortable and I can’t do that anymore.”

Erakat’s most recent heart attack left the family with no way to pay its October rent, so Season of Sharing stepped in and helped for the month, keeping the family in its Vacaville apartment.

“I know Mike has been through a lot with problems with his health,” said caseworker Betty Williams of the Benicia Community Action Council. “He has a family to support and they were about to lose their apartment, so he was trying to find a way to help prevent that.

“We just wanted to try to do something after he told me his story. We didn’t want him to lose his home.”

Erakat is hoping to be approved for disability payments at the end of the month and says he’s grateful for the assistance he and his family have received from Season of Sharing.

“I’ve learned something,” he said. “When I had money, I never thought about the fact that there are people in this kind of situation who need help — even $50 helps. It’s good to donate money to these programs, because it can happen to anyone. It happened to me.”

Erakat, who was born in Kuwait and is of Palestinian-Jordanian descent, arrived in the U.S. in 1986 and became a citizen in 1989. He has a degree in accounting from UC Davis, but he didn’t like the work and was happy to become a cabbie. But that was during the golden days of taxis. When his health has recovered and his finances are more stable, Erakat said, he plans to say goodbye to the volatile ride-hailing industry for good.

“There is no safety net, there is no stability,” he said. “All these ride-share drivers should think twice about what they’re doing. There is no guarantee.”

Susan Slusser is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: sslusser@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @susanslusser

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