Working family gets help with rent after COVID-19 cuts their hours

Rosa Alvizar-Gutierrez and Gamalia Castillo-Becerril pose for a portrait with their daughter Lily, 1, at their home in Napa, Calif. Saturday, November 28, 2020. Rosa Alvizar Gutierrez and her husband Gamalia Castillo-Becerril both had their jobs cut back or furloughed in March. Chronicle Season of Sharing paid their rent for April. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Rosa Alvizar Gutierrez is the keeper of attendance at St. Helena Primary School, but when the school shut down in March, there was no attendance to keep. So Alvizar Gutierrez was reassigned as an interpreter for the school psychologist, helping parents of Spanish-speaking students work through the pressure and anxiety of the pandemic.

But she also felt anxiety and pressure of her own, while working from home and trying to care for her 1-year-old daughter, Lily. Adding to that: Her husband, Gamaliel Castillo-Becerril, was furloughed from his restaurant job.

“We could pay our rent,” Alvizar Gutierrez says, “but nothing else.”

A higher priority was formula and diapers for Lily. When that caused the couple to fall behind on the rent, Castillo-Becerril reached out for help in the age-old tradition. He called his mother.

She had heard about Puertas Abiertas, a nonprofit family resource center in Napa. Castillo-Becerril’s call for help was forwarded to the Napa County Housing and Homelessness Program. Manager Marissa Murphy-Becerra took on his case.

“We were just talking about how rough the situation was with me out of work,” Castillo-Becerril said. “I didn’t really know what to do.”

Murphy-Becerra did.

Rosa Alvizar-Gutierrez reads a book on the rug with her daughter Lily, 1, while decorating their home for the holidays in Napa, Calif. Saturday, November 28, 2020. Rosa Alvizar Gutierrez and her husband Gamalia Castillo-Becerril both had their jobs cut back or furloughed in March. Chronicle Season of Sharing paid their rent for April and money owed for utilities. They are both back at work now. Photo: Jessica Christian  / The Chronicle

She expedited an application to connect them with the Chronicle Season of Sharing Fund, which works to prevent homelessness and hunger in the Bay Area. All donations go directly to help people in need, with administrative costs covered by The Chronicle and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund.

Five days later, a check for the full amount of back-owed rent was sent to their landlord.

“I was surprised to get it,” said Alvizar Gutierrez. “I thought we would not qualify because I have my partial job.”

But a partial job, a full-time job — or, in their case, two full-time jobs — do not offer a cushion in the expensive Napa Valley. Alvizar Gutierrez, 34, has worked full time for the St. Helena Unified School District for four years, and Castillo-Becerril, 32, has worked his way up to sous chef at Lucy Restaurant and Bar inside the Bardessono Hotel and Spa in Yountville. Rent and car payments account for half their take-home pay, and child care another quarter of it.

“It is difficult for our hospitality and administrative workers to be self-sufficient in the Napa Valley,” said Murphy-Becerra. “Everyday necessities are already pulling at everything they earn.”

Starting in March, the Napa County Housing and Homelessness Program has been overwhelmed with people impacted by the pandemic. In the first six weeks, there were 1,500 requests for assistance. It took until the end of April for Murphy-Becerra to get back to Castillo-Becerril. Season of Sharing was able to cover his overdue rent for April, along with overdue water and PG&E bills.

“Both of them were resounding in their appreciation,” Murphy-Becerra said. “Even though it took weeks to process their application, Mr. Castillo-Becerril was gracious and courteous.”

Alvizar Gutierrez and Castillo-Becerril have the advantage of family in the Napa Valley. She was born in St. Helena, but her family moved to Mexico City when she was 3.

“I would come in summertime to visit my family here,” she said. “I had good memories of good people.”

So after she graduated from college at Technologico de Monterrey in Mexico, she moved back to St. Helena.

Her mother now lives in Fairfield and was able to pitch in with free child care and help with day-to-day expenses. With this support, the family has managed to stay current on the rent for their small house, which has three rooms and one bathroom.

“We like the place,” said Castillo-Becerril, “but in difficult times it is hard to afford.”

Their situation improved in August when Alvizar Gutierrez was recalled to her full-time job with the St. Helena school district. Castillo-Becerril was recalled to work, too, but only part time because his restaurant does not have indoor service.

She goes to work in the morning and he goes to work at night. They see each other on weekends.

But in late November, the routine was disrupted when their daughter came down with a cold that she soon passed to her dad. Normally, Castillo-Becerril would have worked through it, but with the coronavirus protocols, he stayed home from work for four days. Then Alvizar Gutierrez caught it, luckily during the holiday break, so she did not have to call in sick. They were both tested and the results came back on Thanksgiving Day. Negative for both.

“Things are good for us again,” Alvizar Gutierrez said one evening after work. “I am glad it is all over with.”

Sam Whiting is a staff writer for The San Francisco Chronicle’s Datebook section. Twitter: @samwhitingsf

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