Patricia Mendoza wakes up gasping, fumbling in the dark for her bedside inhaler. She used to suffer asthma attacks perhaps twice a year. During the pandemic, she’s up to seven.

“It felt like I was drowning, every time” she said.

Doctors tell her it’s stress, and wildfires. To her, it’s simple mathematics. She earned exactly $2,000 per month before the pandemic. She spent $1,500 of that on rent for the two-bedroom apartment in Imperial Beach she shares with her children, ages 9 and 17. That left $500 for everything else.

Patricia Mendoza
Age: 45
City: Imperial Beach, San Diego County
Race/Ethnicity: Latina
Occupation: Medical driver

Patricia was already spending 75% of her take home pay on rent before the pandemic. Since losing her job as a medical transport driver, the single mother of two has fallen behind on rent.

In March, her employer went out of business and she missed her April and May rent payments. Mendoza, 45, made up her rent with federal stimulus and state unemployment benefits, until those, too, ran out and she missed her rent payments in June, July and August. A new landlord purchased her apartment complex and has filed eviction paperwork — the new owner wants to replace the roof, a type eviction not covered by California’s eviction moratorium, which only prohibits evictions for non-payment of rent.

Her net worth is less than zero dollars. Her asthma leaves her afraid to take a job in the checkout line of a grocery store or anything else that requires face-to-face contact.

“If I see somebody without a mask, I just walk away,” she said. “If I don’t come back to my kids, who’s gonna take care of them?”

Her children ask if they can help with the rent, and she cries.

And still she wakes up gasping.

Mendoza enjoyed a middle class life for at least a decade. She and her husband were never far from debt, but they managed. Then, in 2015, they divorced and Mendoza moved with her children into the Imperial Beach apartment where she now lives.

Credit card bills mounted. Her credit score fell into shambles. She needed a friend to cosign her lease. But even with all of the new hassles of single parenthood and a tumble down the economic ladder, they felt stable.

“Mom would find a dime on the street, mom would pick it up,” she said, laughing.

At the outset of the pandemic, she tried to pay all of her bills. She doesn’t like owing people money, and she has held a job since she was 7-years-old selling cartons of eggs out of the back of her father’s truck in National City.

She looks back on the early days of the pandemic with a mix of frustration and regret. One of the first bills she paid was her utility bill, because her children needed electricity and the Internet for online schooling. She only later learned she could have spent the money on food or rent instead because of a statewide utility shutoff moratorium.

Behind four months on the rent, Mendoza opened her mail one day in early October to find an eviction notice from her new landlord, along with an explanation.

“I am a single mother,” the landlord wrote, explaining that she needed the rental income herself to avoid foreclosure.

Other people in her apartment complex are leaving. Mendoza says she can’t. “How am I going to find a deposit and first month’s rent?”

Now, her benefits have slowed to a trickle — her last unemployment deposit was for $48 — and she’s not sure where she’s going to find her next paycheck.

“This is the worst thing that has happened in my life and in a lot of people’s lives,” she said.

If all else should fail and she is indeed evicted, Mendoza says she, her children and their chihuahua would live out of the family’s white Econoline van. But she’s hoping the state will take some kind of action before she has to make that choice.

* This project is part of California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California. is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.