Evenings are the worst at 11-year-old Jechel McMahon’s new home.
There is little space for kids to play and quiet hour starts at 8:30pm. Adults are always shushing her to be quiet, but when Jechel (pronounced JE-SHEL) tries to sleep, a baby’s cries keep her up.
Then, there is the lack of privacy. Mom, Dad and Jechel’s younger brother, Jake, all sleep in one room and use a bathroom in the hallway. Even basic things like changing clothes become uncomfortable when everyone’s piled in like that.
“There are many rules and you can’t make a lot of noise,” Jechel explains about her home at the Mary Isaak Center, a transitional shelter run by the Committee on the Shelterless (COTS) where she has lived since last August. “Otherwise people come out and yell at you to be quiet.”
It wasn’t always like this.
Two years ago, Jechel lived in a modest, but comfortable home on Petaluma’s Eastside. There were three bedrooms, a pool in the backyard and a park across the street. But after Jechel’s father, Marshall, lost his job as a salesman for a window company and her mom, Julie, became sick, the family struggled to make payments on the home.
After using most of their savings to pay the mortgage, the family still found themselves facing eviction and moved into a nearby apartment complex. Marshall McMahon, 43, a former rock musician who grew up in Marin County and bought his Petaluma home in 1999, went on unemployment, but a year later, the checks dried up and regular work was still nowhere to be found.
For the first time in his life, McMahon, a law-abiding, taxpaying, father of three (his oldest is now staying with a friend) faced the specter of homeless.
“I’ve experienced a lot of things in life, but this I was definitely not prepared for,” he said.
Homelessness has increased by 40 percent throughout the county since 2009, according to COTS. Some people are plagued by addiction and mental health issues, but many of the new homeless have ended up on the street after losing a job, sustaining an injury or both, according to COTS executive director John Records.
In McMahon’s case, a culmination of factors led to the family's current situation. After losing a lucrative sales job in 2007 and finding another less paying one, McMahon was looking for more cash. On the advice of a friend, he refinanced his mortgage to access a part of his home’s equity. McMahon got the money, but in the process increased his mortgage payments and interest rate, which he now says was a dumb thing to do.
“I take full responsibility for my mistake, but I always thought there would be an opportunity to work things out with a bank,” he says.
There wasn’t. Despite numerous calls to his lender, McMahon was not able to lower his payments. Meanwhile, Julie got sick, experiencing seizure-like episodes that left her unable to work and which McMahon attributes to stress.
The family’s plummeting fall from comfortable middle class existence to the homeless shelter has been hard.
“I was living the ideal life and I earned it because I worked hard to achieve all that I had,” says McMahon, recalling the long workdays and extensive travel that were a normal part of his job. “Now my biggest regret is not slowing down and appreciating what I had when I had it.”
The other is not being able to give his children everything he wishes he could.
“I had a great childhood and I know that this is impacting my children and that’s what hurts me the most,” McMahon says.
Despite his family’s predicament, McMahon says he’s grateful to COTS for giving him “a little bit of a foundation under his feet” while he figures out how to find permanent housing. Staying in town has meant that Jechel and Jake can still go to their old school and even participate in cheerleading and baseball, although the McMahons have had to do work exchanges in order to pay for their kids’ activities.
“There is a certain amount of humility to all this, but to tell you the truth, I haven’t accepted the fact that I’m homeless,” says McMahon. “And I don’t plan on this being a permanent situation.”
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