Fifty-year-old Steve Mentz never thought he’d end up a statistic.
He also never imagined he’d be living on the streets of Merced, wondering where his next meal or shower might come from.
But Mentz is just one of the 35.1 percent of Mercedians living below the poverty level, according to new statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Sept. 18.
The data from the 2013 survey paints a grim picture for Merced – poverty in the city has climbed 5 percentage points in a year, rising from 30.3 percent in 2012.
Merced County’s poverty rate isn’t much better. The statistics show 25.2 percent of the county’s population lives in poverty, outpacing neighboring Stanislaus County’s 22.1 percent and San Joaquin County’s rate of 19.9 percent. By comparison, the state poverty level was 16.8 percent and the national average was 15.8 percent.
The county’s poverty rate has risen from 24.3 percent in 2012, according to the data.
Mentz, who tried to beat the afternoon heat at a Merced park recently, said he’s surprised the city and county poverty rates aren’t higher.
“Even people that have houses and jobs are living in poverty,” said Mentz, clutching his 6-year-old dog Chiquita. “They need to do something or there’s going to be more people out on the street.”
Mentz lost his job as a plumber in 2001 after losing vision in one eye. He applied for disability benefits seven years ago, but said he’s still waiting for approval. His story – losing a stable paycheck, having trouble finding another job and then winding up on the street – is not an uncommon one.
Mentz sleeps on the ground and gets shuffled from one city park to another by authorities.
“I wake up covered in bugs. They’re making it hard for us to find a place to lay our head,” he explained. “Nobody ever dreams of that. No one wants to be here.”
As the poverty levels rise, the statistics show median family income has dropped.
Merced County’s average income was $43,430 in 2013, down 12.9 percent from 2012, according to the data. In the city, family income was about $36,594, a drop of 16.6 percent from 2012.
As income plummets, many residents are stretching every dollar to pay rent and bills, relying on a helping hand to get a meal.
That’s the case for Joe, a 56-year-old Merced man, who declined to give his last name.
Joe gathered with several others behind St. Vincent de Paul in downtown Merced last week, waiting for a sandwich lunch.
The organization hands out free bag lunches from noon to 12:30 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
“I see a lot of people out there that are barely making it,” Joe said. “I have a place, but food is very expensive. My check is nothing. So I get food from the church.”
Merced Mayor Stan Thurston said it’s “inexcusable” to see the city’s poverty level rise. He plans to discuss the issue at a future City Council meeting.
“We need to talk about that and find out what all the reasons are,” Thurston said. “We can’t sit back and wait for this to fix itself, because it won’t. We need to know what’s causing this.”
The mayor said the focus should be on creating new jobs and making the city a business-friendly environment.
Merced County’s unemployment rate increased to 12.7 percent in July, up from 12.2 percent in June and nearly double the nation’s jobless rate, according to the latest data from the state Employment Development Department.
Solving the county’s transportation problems is another step in attracting businesses, Thurston said.
The mayor said he wants to brainstorm ways to fund the Campus Parkway project, which would connect Highway 99 to UC Merced and create access to an open area where retail and industrial land could be developed.
More jobs will result in an increase in other kinds of economic activity, city officials said.
Gail Henslee, 60, has been homeless for a year but said she has applied for a handful of jobs. Without a home address, a shower or clean clothing, she said, employers won’t give her a chance.
“No one will hire you without a permanent address,” said Henslee, who once worked at Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale.
“There are a lot of people that live paycheck to paycheck, and they don’t know how close they are to living on the streets like us.”
As Merced County’s poverty level rises, one expert said it increases demand for services offered by government agencies and faith-based and nonprofit organizations.
“Those living below the poverty threshold are able to meet some of their basic needs, but not all of them,” said Jeanette Garcia, administrator of the Merced County Homeless Continuum of Care.
“I think it’s going to take many people working together to put together a plan of action.”