With no work to be found, Carson couple turns to panhandling
Each weekday morning since March 24, journeyman carpenter Kurt Cunningham arrives in Fernley by 7 a.m. to show the foreman at a school construction site he is serious.
“Every day I just make an appearance to check back and see if they have anything available. I go there so they know I want to work,” he said.
Thus far his effort has been futile, so Cunningham, 44, gets back into his car and drives home to Carson for another job that he shares with his wife and dog Rocky – panhandling.
Since their unemployment ran out in October, the couple stands on Carson City street corners holding a sign that reads, “Please Help.”
When their 8-year-old son Michael is on break from his classes at Fremont, he sits in the car and watches videos.
The decision to make public their private struggle came out of necessity. Kurt couldn’t find work – his last job was in August – and since then he’s pawned all of his tools to make ends meet.
His wife, Trilby, 36, was laid off from her job at a local casino. She hasn’t received a call back on any job she has applied for, from convenience store clerk to receptionist.
“Every letter you see stacked right there is a bill,” Cunningham said Friday, pointing to a pile of envelopes on the breakfast bar in their small tidy apartment. “One day we didn’t have any milk in the fridge and we didn’t know what to do. (Trilby) said, ‘I’ll make up a sign and stand on the corner if I have to.’ So I grabbed a Sharpie and we made a sign.”
The first time they panhandled was five months ago near the Topsy Lane shopping center.
“It was scary. Straight up scary,” said Kurt.
“We still get embarrassed,” Trilby added.
“But pride be damned when it comes to my son,” Kurt said.
After a few hours, people had donated $80. They went right away to Walmart and bought groceries.
Since then, Monday through Friday starting at 10 a.m., the Cunninghams stand on Clearview Drive just west of Carson Street with their sign. They don’t always make much. On Friday they took in $24 during the morning shift. But that money adds up, and Kurt said they have almost made their $675 rent for the month, due Monday.
“People look at us and we don’t look like winos so they always ask what happened. I tell them I’m a union carpenter and I’m out of work,” he said.
At 12:30 p.m. they drive home and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. At 3 p.m. they are back on the corner.
Kurt said he and Trilby both go so people can see who they are. Their service dog Rocky, who alerts Trilby when her blood sugar is low, accompanies them out of necessity and companionship. Michael also goes when he is on break from school because they won’t leave their 8-year-old home alone.
“This is how we are surviving right now,” said Trilby. “That’s why we have our apartment still. Otherwise we’d be living under a rock.”
Some people are rude. One man this week yelled “Get a job!” at Kurt. He asked the man, “Where?”
“I’ve really been spit on,” he said. “But if Michael needs to eat I’d rather stand on the corner and have seven or eight people yell at me for that one person who will help so I can feed him,” he said.
He hands out his phone number to anyone who suggests they might have work for them. Trilby picked up an hour of work on Saturdays and Sundays from a woman who stopped to help. Kurt has gotten carpentry and yard work when people find out he’s willing to work.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the national unemployment rate is at 9.7 percent. The number of people out of work six months or longer reached 6.5 million in March, a new high. According to government data, the worst recession since the 1930s has wiped out 8.2 million jobs, making the competition for any openings fierce. On average, there are five or six unemployed people competing for each opening.
Despite the dire straights the city is in – unemployment in Carson City sits at 13.9 percent – the kindness shown the Cunninghams has been amazing, said Kurt.
“I’d like to say thank you to the people of Carson City,” he said, his voice cracking. “It blows us away, we have so many good people here. Thank you so much.”
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