When you live in a rural community like San Geronimo, your heat comes from propane.
For Deirdre McDonald, Victor Urbaez and their son, Sage Urbaez, the propane bills piled up to the extent that they were looking ahead at a long, cold winter.
At the same time, when their income dropped precipitously because of shelter-in-place orders, they fell behind on the rent on their cozy one-bedroom cottage.
Urbaez, 64, makes a living doing window washing, house-painting and repairs — all work that dried up during the pandemic. McDonald, 58, has low vision caused by glaucoma and gets Social Security income.
“We were hanging from a cliff on a rope,” Urbaez said. “When the pandemic hit, that was the breaking point. Without help at that particular time, it would have been game up.”
The family was “in a bit of duress … really struggling,” said Chris Miranda, safety net services manager at Community Action Marin, a social services agency. McDonald “was overwhelmed and stressed out because she had a lot going on.”
The agency connected them with the Chronicle Season of Sharing Fund, which covered two months’ worth of rent. It also referred them to a source of assistance for their propane bills.
Season of Sharing works year-round to help people in the nine-county Bay Area, seeking to prevent homelessness and hunger. All administrative costs are covered by The Chronicle and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, so 100% of donations go directly to help communities in need.
I love to work; I don’t want a handout.
McDonald gets emotional talking about the help.
“They rescued me completely,” she said. “With shelter-in-palace, Victor had no work, and the rent was unpaid. My anxiety level hit the roof.”
Urbaez likewise is appreciative and also grateful for the many lifelong friends who’ve stepped up. “That kind of a network helps a lot with survival; it’s key for people like ourselves,” he said.
Urbaez has been picking up more jobs lately, but not enough to cover the rent and bills. He had hoped to make some money driving for Uber, but the transmission died on his Nissan Xterra, and he can’t afford the thousands of dollars to get it repaired. Instead, he got an old beat-up Volkswagen Jetta just to get around.
“I love to work; I don’t want a handout,” he said.
His other love is music: He plays both guitar and bass, and had started getting some gigs as a backup musician before the pandemic. He’s done some Zoom concerts in recent months.
“Music is healing,” he said. “It raises the energy, both physical and spiritual, of the audience.”
Distance learning has been hard on Sage, 17, who misses his friends and is disappointed to lose out on typical senior-year experiences. He’s pinning hope on a soccer scholarship for low-income families, but will also apply to San Francisco State and Sacramento State, as well as community colleges.
McDonald started losing vision at age 29.
“Getting the glaucoma was definitely a monkey wrench for me,” she said.
She was able to work at a local boutique for some years and also worked as a physical therapy aide. More recently, she has made and sold crafts and taught classes in dance and healing arts. She’d like to teach classes about vision health.
Even though their landlord is understanding, she’s worried about how they’ll make ends meet.
“The landlord has been kind and nice about not demanding the rent. That’s been a grace,” she said. “But I have a lot of terror and anxiety — how will we pay our rent in six months?
“I’m living in the unknown; I think a lot of us are.”