Reinisha spent last Thursday evening like any mother might—picking up her sons from Boy Scouts.

She sank deep into an overstuffed sofa at the Bernal Dwellings Community Center while she waited for them to get out, the cushions nearly engulfing her small frame as she took a moment to relax—something rare for a single mother of four boys.

Unlike most mothers, however, Reinisha and her sons — aged four to 14 — would return later in the day to Saint Joseph’s Family Center, a shelter on Guerrero Street where they have been living for six months.

“We have our own room, our own bathroom,” she said, explaining how it’s better than sleeping on spare couches, which is something the family had done plenty of in the last five years. “We have our privacy.”

For Reinisha, and the roughly 534,000 recipients on CalWorks,  the state’s welfare to work program, making ends meet got harder last July when cash grants were cut by 4 percent; dropping to approximately the same amount paid out in 1989.   The average grant for a family of three dropped to $694, from $723 in July.

The cuts come as reliance on public assistance has grown. In San Francisco, CalWorks caseloads increased by 6 percent in the last year and a half, rising to 4,800. About 10 percent, or 488, of the city’s grant recipients live in the Mission District.

CalWorks, like welfare programs across the country, provides public assistance and training to low-income adults with minor children.  The welfare to work program has a maximum limit of five years of benefits.

With the new cuts, the checks fail to go far.  Increasingly many CalWorks clients are coming to use the center food pantry at the Salvation Army’s Mission Corps Community Center, according to Enicia Montavlo, a case manager there.

The after-school program has also grown because more parents are out searching for work.

“People are anxious to find any kind of job,” she said. “People are starting to get desperate.”

That Thursday it seemed like the strings that held Reinisha’s life together had begun to unravel. Her temporary six-month stay at the family shelter would run out on October 17. The aid she received through CalWorks was too little to qualify her for low-income housing and after more than two years on the San Francisco public housing waitlist, her name still hadn’t been called.

“Sometimes it hurts me,” she said referring to the uncertainty in her life.  Nearby, children from Bernal Dwellings ran through the community center, chatting and laughing as they grabbed snacks from a few bowls that lined a table.

“I get ready to cry,” said Reinisha, the frustration surging in her voice. “Then I hold it in.”

Becoming Independent

According to the California Budget Project, a CalWorks grant is now worth about 54 percent of what a welfare check was worth 20 years ago. With grants shrinking, getting people off of aid is increasingly urgent, said Michele Rutherford, a Human Services Agency official.

“As soon as you reduce the base grant, you get farther behind what families should be getting to be able to live,” she said.

Before the economy faltered last fall, CalWorks recipients generally moved to better paying jobs through welfare-to-work, but with unemployment reaching 12.2 percent statewide, and nearly 10 percent in San Francisco, the federal stimulus stepped in with another program.

Jobs Now funds full-time jobs in the private and public sectors for CalWorks participants and others. Since it began in July, 485 San Franciscans have enrolled, including some 130 in the Mission.

Carola Guadamuz is one of them. She spent the better part of this year on CalWorks and now makes $12.21 an hour as a public service trainee with Muni, almost three times what she made on public assistance.

But just a few weeks after starting the job she almost lost it. In early September Guadamuz learned that although she qualified for a childcare subsidy voucher for her three young children, her day care provider hadn’t been paid in weeks.

It turned out that her CalWorks employment specialist had been laid off—one of hundreds of human services employees let go since February—and her case had gotten lost in the shuffle of reorganization.

It took weeks of calls, and an inquiry from MissionLoc@l, to get her subsidy restored. The news came just days before Guadamuz’s 78-year-old grandmother, who’d been caring for her young children for two weeks, headed off to Nicaragua.

“It was stressful,” said Guadamuz. “They just left me hanging in the air.”

Without the subsidy, she would have had to quit, said Guadamuz. That probably would’ve meant going back to the physically abusive boyfriend she left four months ago since living off her $694 CalWorks grant would be almost impossible.

The single room she rents for her family at $500 a month would have taken all but $194 of a CalWorks check.

For the next year, Guadamuz will earn a liveable wage — $23,000. But the federal cash flow that subsidizes her Jobs Now position dries up in September 2010. Still, she’s hopeful that the work experience and references will help her land another job when this one ends next year.

“I’m proud of at least being able to keep a roof over their heads now,” said Guadamuz, “of being able to provide for [my children].”

Job programs have proven less successful for Reinisha. A year and a half ago she completed a welfare-to-work training program only to lose the job it earned her after a dispute with a co-worker. As a result,  she was sanctioned, meaning that her CalWorks grant of $561 covers only two of her four children. She hasn’t found work since.

But three weeks ago Reinisha enrolled in a GED program at City College with the help of her case manager at Saint Joseph’s Family Center.

And on Monday afternoon her life had taken a turn for the better. She received a letter from the San Francisco Housing Authority — a three-bedroom apartment in the Sunnydale public housing development in Bayshore had opened up, and she’s next in line to move in.

“I feel great,” said Reinisha, smiling broadly and watching her four-year-old son. Impatient for dinner to be served,  he climbed all over the couches in Saint Joseph Family Center’s downstairs common room.

“This is going to be my first place,” she said, gripping the residency letter she has to take with her on Wednesday when she goes to check out her new apartment.

Reinisha’s goal now is to earn her GED before the year’s end, and then to find work. She said she feels more confident about the prospect of getting off of welfare for good.

“This time I’m ready,” said Reinisha.