The man sitting next to the lane of traffic exiting the shopping mall has a cardboard sign propped up in front of him: “Homeless. Please help.” The drivers who inch past waiting to merge into moving traffic look determinedly ahead. One rolls down the window and hands out some change. “Bless you,” the man with the sign says, “Bless you.”

A few blocks down the road another homeless man sleeps on a shady patch of grass near another shopping mall. He has his wire supermarket basket next to him, piled high with tattered plastic bags, grimy blankets, his possessions. It isn’t hard to spot a homeless person, in spite of their apparent invisibility to other people. Lack of opportunities for bathing and grooming identify Ventura County’s approximately 2,000 homeless (1,961 on Jan. 23, 2007, according to the County of Ventura Homeless Count).

But it is not at all easy to recognize those living at the next precarious level above homelessness, those with enough economic stability to put a roof over their heads and occasional food on the table. They look like anybody else, maybe even a little better since looking good is important to a survival plan.

Harold Banales — the names here are not actual names, but the people are real — is in his 60s, intelligent and articulate, a veteran and political activist with many friends in the community. He works hard for Veterans for Peace, attending marches and rallies and meetings, often showing up at Arlington West for the effort to put up the beach memorial — one cross for each serviceman killed in Iraq — in Santa Monica every Sunday.

A year ago Harry was getting by. He has a little house in West Ventura that has been in his family since his grandfather’s time. He gets $708 in Social Security on the second Wednesday of every month. And he had strategies, which included making the rounds of the agencies that give out free food.

“At the senior center if you’re 55 and older, you’re considered a senior and you can eat a good healthy lunch for $2.75,” Harry said. “If you don’t have any money, they just make you feel uncomfortable. I would just empty my pockets and give them all my change. The next week I’d go to the Catholic Charities, the third week Project Understanding, the fourth week I’d get food bags from a Presbyterian Church.”

Harry looks back on those days as a peaceful time. They didn’t last. He got a part-time job at a job center, helping job seekers use the Internet. There he met Becky, a middle- aged woman who came to the center looking for work. Becky had to move out of the room she was renting from a friend because it was needed for a family member, so she had to move her belongings into a storage space. Harry helped her, and said she could sleep on his sofa until she found a place to live.

Becky found a job as a merchandiser for a soft drink company, but before she could find her own place to rent, she was in an accident coming back from doing laundry one night. She was heading downhill on Main Street when a car pulled out in front of her. Her car was demolished and her collar bone broken. The trip downhill has gone on.

“If she wasn’t staying with me, where would she be?” Harry said. “Just think about it. She doesn’t have an apartment. She can’t sleep in her car because now she doesn’t have one. She’s not a drug addict or an alcoholic. She can’t go to a sober living home. There’s no place for a female to get help. First you’ve got to be an alcoholic or a drug addict. Where would she qualify? I haven’t been able to figure that one out. Otherwise I’d send her there. Through no fault of her own she’s fallen through the cracks.”

The problems are emotional as well as financial. Although Becky is in severe pain, she’s been waiting for over three months for her insurance provider to arrange an operation.

“You can only take so much pain before your psyche starts compensating in ways that aren’t nice,” Harry said. “I don’t know the mechanics or even the terminology, the psychobabble, that they use to describe it … clinical depression, chronic depression, hypertension, post traumatic stress disorder … I mean whatever it is, she’s got it. And sometimes I can’t handle it.”

When the money is completely gone, Harry can leave a check for $300 at a check cashing emporium, a worthless check. They give him $255. Within a month he has to give them $300 in cash. (As long as he pays it back within 30 days, the fee is $45, meaning that if he quickly repays the loan in seven days, the fee represents a 930.32 percent annual percentage rate, but if he waits the full month, the rate would be the same as a 214.71 percent APR) He doesn’t have to pay rent, but he does have to pay taxes. He’s a couple of years behind, owing about $600, but the county can’t foreclose for a total of five years.

While Harry and Becky are trying hard to keep from sliding further down that slippery slope, Bill Millwright is trying to scramble up. He’s been at the bottom.

He’s been in and out of prison several times, each time a result of alcoholism. Last December he was released on the 4th of the month and back in prison on the 29th.

“I was only out for 25 days.” Bill said, “I was on the street, staying at the mission, and I couldn’t find a job. It was Christmas time. I couldn’t deal with not having a job, being homeless. I was in the worst state of mind I’d ever been in. And I got drunk and got caught stealing a pack of baloney and a bag of potato chips.”

Although Bill reports that drugs and alcohol are readily available in prison — he was in Wasco near Bakersfield — he was determined that he wasn’t going to drink or do drugs while he was in there.

“I made my mind up,” he said. “I wasn’t going to do anything in there. My cell stayed drunk every day, but I never touched it. I started my sobriety the day I went in, because I knew I was finished. I got out April the 6th.”

Bill got out of Wasco with $90 gate money, of which he spent $30 on a Greyhound Bus ticket to Oxnard. He didn’t have much going for him aside from the $60 he had left. But he does have a couple of useful attributes. He’s tall and well-built. With his tanned face and easy smile he looks like he might be the golf pro at a local country club. The few clothes he bought at local thrift stores are always clean and ironed.

Another thing Bill has going for him is being a skilled heavy equipment operator. Although he never finished high school, he’s an experienced worker.

“My grandfather built golf courses, and I’ve been operating heavy equipment all my life,” Bill said. The problem was transportation. It wasn’t easy getting to where jobs were available. The heavy equipment companies have their yards and offices out on the far edges of towns, places where there is either no public bus service, or, if there is, the Ventura Intercity Service Transit Authority buses don’t start running until 6 a.m. And the jobs all start at 6 a.m.

Another serious problem was housing. According to Thad Hood, the volunteer coordinator at the Ventura County Rescue Mission on Sixth Street in Oxnard, the mission has 85 beds for their residential rehabilitation program, which requires a nine month commitment. There are 36 spaces available for those, like Bill, needing short-term shelter. The policy is that short-term guests can stay for 10 days and then have to spend five days out before they can return. Otherwise, Hood said the mission doesn’t turn anyone away.

“If it’s raining, or more show up than usual, we bring in mattresses and they can sleep in the dining hall,” Hood said.

But Bill needed to find a more stable environment.

Community Action of Ventura County has a program which provides assistance to those who are employed and need to have housing close to their work. They can give financial assistance in the form of grants for deposits and move-in expenses. Neil Campbell, senior intake worker, thought Bill would qualify for a grant, but it was April and the program was out of money. Neil said there would be new funding when the fiscal year began on July 1 and the new contracts with the cities of Ventura County began.

“We have the new contracts now,” Neil said, “but only two of the cities, Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks, have paid so far. It’s their money. They don’t have to do it at all.”

Meanwhile, Bill is cobbling together a survival plan.

“Without friends it’s impossible,” Bill said.

He was able to borrow $250, which he has since repaid, to get into a sober living house. This wasn’t exactly a bargain since he had to share a tiny room with a roommate who watched television late at night when Bill needed to sleep. The house owner charged $450 a month plus a $25 late fee each week the rent wasn’t paid on time, so the rent turned out to be $550 for half a small room in a crowded house with only two bathrooms. But he wasn’t on the street.

Another friend volunteered to drive Bill to job interviews, and for a few days to the job he got at a pipe-laying company on the outskirts of Camarillo. After that he made arrangements to ride with a co-worker. He injured his knee the first week on the job and had a bad infection that required spending the weekend in the hospital.

“Nine thousand dollars for the hospital,” Bill said. “I told them I was not going to go in the hospital. The doctor said, ‘You need to go into the hospital or we’ll have to take your leg off in a couple of days.’ So I didn’t have a choice.” But he was back at work on Monday morning.

The question of choices is much debated. According to David Shipler, author of The Working Poor: Invisible in America, conservatives contend that the poor are poor because of their bad choices, and liberals claim the poor are poor because of society’s bad choices. The truth, Shipler says, usually lies somewhere in the middle and varies considerably from case to case.

Certainly Bill made his share of bad choices, but right now he’s pedaling as hard as he can — literally, since he bought a bicycle and rides it five miles to the highway every morning at 5 a.m. so he can meet the co-worker who gives him a ride to work and back in the evening, to ride the bike five miles to his rented room in Oxnard. On his back Bill carries thousands and thousands of dollars worth of debts — the recent medical bills, back child support payments, fines for past DUI’s, the fees he has to pay for the traffic school to have his license reinstated so he can have his own transportation.

On the other hand, society, as represented by the State of California, seems to be making some questionable choices, too.

The state, according to the California Legislative Analyst, spends $23,000 each year for each inmate. The Task Force on California Prison Crowding, appointed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, recommended reforming the parole system, which currently requires those released from prison to remain on parole for three years and has resulted in one-third of prison inmates being incarcerated for parole violations. The task force detailed the need to “provide essential services to re-entering prisoners. These include housing, employment, mental and physical health care, and substance abuse treatment…” But instead of acting on the recommendations of the task force, the governor and legislators have just passed legislation to build 53,000 new prison beds at a cost of $15 billion dollars.

The deteriorating situation in Ventura County and across the United States is creating what presidential hopeful John Edwards calls “two Americas,” one very wealthy and one desperately poor. Mayor Maricela Morales of the City of Port Hueneme agrees. She had extensive experience as a social justice worker before elected Her Honor. She worked for Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), an alliance of Central Coast agencies providing direct services for working families struggling for survival, and she is still its associate executive director. These charitable organizations are swamped by the increasing flood of requests for their services.

“The main obstacle is the growth in poverty and the shrinking of the middle class, even though people are working more,” Morales said. “As an example, in 2005, median income grew by 4.5 percent, while for the 98th percentile of income earners the income grew by 33 percent. This while the cost of housing, child care, transportation (gas) and health insurance increase in the double digits … What this makes clear is that poverty is not created primarily by individual behavior, but by unresponsive public policy.”

In spite of the daunting size and complexity of the problem of increasing poverty, Mayor Morales is positive and practical. She cites the actions of the ordinary citizens who created the Minimum Wage and the Civil Rights Movement.

“The major obstacle is that people and organizations feel powerless or fearful of changing policies that perpetuate poverty,” she said. “History has shown time and time again that when people and organizations advocate, the most dramatic problems are improved.”