BERKELEY, Calif. (KGO) -- Six months after the pandemic threw millions out of work, 600,000 Californians are still waiting for their first unemployment checks. So what's happened to them after all these months? 7 On Your Side found it's been "life-changing" for many.
Numbers tell you trends. They don't tell you about the people behind them. 7 On Your Side has reported on many who have wiped out savings and gone deep in debt while EDD fumbles with their claims. One mother is literally out in the wilderness with her little boy.
Shelby Hughes and her four-year-old little boy Callen were all smiles as they celebrated the new year.
A single mom, she made a good life nonetheless. They rented a nice house in Berkeley, Callen made friends in daycare, and Hughes sold life insurance, waiting tables on the side.
But when the pandemic hit, it all came crashing down.
"I'd made a life for myself and now it's gone, just like that," says Hughes.
Hughes lost both jobs. And worse, the EDD denied her benefits.
To this day it cannot explain why.
"I couldn't afford rent, I couldn't afford anything. I started losing everything one by one," Hughes says.
Now, this station wagon is their home.
"Being in the car has changed him a lot," Hughes says of her son.
A boy's energy, too big for a car.
"He throws a lot of temper tantrums and stuff; he was never like that," she says.
Callen doesn't know why they can't go home.
"He went from having his own room and going to daycare, seeing his friends, to now just me in the car, going 'camping'," Hughes says, gesturing air quotes.
Hughes had applied for unemployment back in March - but she didn't earn enough from her waitress job to qualify. Then, in May, the EDD awarded her benefits for her contract job selling insurance.
She even got her first payment.
"I got really excited and hopeful, then they sent me all the certifications..." she recounts.
However, the first payment was also her last.
"All of a sudden, I see this little thing that says 'disqualified.' I started to call them. I called, I called, I could never get through," Hughes says.
No one at EDD could explain why her payments suddenly stopped.
"Something to do with their system, so I'm gonna have to wait for a specialist to call me. I said, 'Every time you guys say that nobody ever calls me. And the number you guys give me, nobody ever answers,'" she says.
"I had a bunch of people saying there's nothing they can do for me. I had one guy hang up on me, I had one guy yell at me," Hughes continues. "They just keep telling me I have to keep waiting. I'm like how much longer can I keep waiting? Till I can't even feed my child?"
Hughes packed two lives into one car.
"For somebody like me with no family, this is an almost impossible situation. Right now it's really hard. Nothing's normal about what's going on," she says.
She tries to make a car into a home.
"This right here is his playroom, it's got all of his toys. These seats right here, they lay down flat so I just make a bed out of all the blankets," Hughes demonstrates.
Each night is a frightening one, mother and son alone in the dark.
"The campsites, they can get scary because there's not a lot of people camping during the week... I put blankets around the windows. It makes us feel safer. Just the other night I was having trouble sleeping... and somebody tried to open our doors."
Callen chimes in on our interview. "Mommy, I want to tell you about the mountain lion."
"The mountain lion..." Hughes begins.
It was their biggest scare yet - in the middle of the night, Hughes says, "I felt something push on the back of the car. I said, 'What is that?' I peeked through the sheets...It was a huge mountain lion sniffing our back window... it was the scariest thing I've ever been through alone."
If she could just get her EDD benefits, everything could go back to the way it was.
"I called them for the millionth time and... the guy on the phone told me there might've been a computer error or something... somebody hit the wrong button," she says.
But no answers.
Callen grows restless in the car. "Mommy, I wanna go in the swimming pool before it closes."
He'd seen a swimming pool across the parking lot.
It's a private club.
"Honey we don't have a membership," Hughes explains.
He grows more agitated -- another thing he can't have.
"It breaks my heart. I feel like a failure all the time... all I want to do is make a life for my little boy. He's all I have and I can't even do that," Hughes says.
"I tried to tell EDD too: I understand I'm just another claim. I'm just another number. But to me, this is my life. Like, I wanna go back to work. I want to take care of my son. It's like they just don't hear me."
Hughes emails EDD again.
Again, an automated reply: "Thank you for your question."
"I feel some days I'm just gonna lose it. I can't take it anymore. I just like, is this really what I was meant to do? Is this why I was put here, to go through this pain all the time?" she asks.
But right now, night is falling. Hughes finds a place to camp - behind a hotel next to a bush. Safe, yet hidden.
"I just feel better when there's more people around than in the middle of nowhere, y'know what I mean?" she says.
Dinner is meager.
"This is our leftover McDonald's from yesterday; he's got chicken nuggets," she explains.
She turns the car into a bed, covering windows to hide.
"If it was just me it's one thing, but it's him too. There's nothing I can do. I just have to hope and pray..." she says. "All those people at EDD, like, I'm pretty much putting our lives into their hands and literally begging to help save me and my little boy from having to sleep with one eye open, you know?"
Hughes saw our stories online about 7 On Your Side helping folks get benefits. Now we're demanding to know - why has EDD denied benefits when she seems clearly eligible, leaving a mom and her boy out in the cold?
A GoFundMe page has been created to help Hughes and her son. You can make a donation here.
Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.
App users: For a better experience, click here to view the full map in a new window
RELATED STORIES & VIDEOS:
- Unemployment claims paused for 2 weeks as report reveals 600K awaiting benefits in EDD backlog
- Coronavirus employment recovery will not be equal across Bay Area, new report predicts
- $2.5 million in EDD fraud leads to arrest of 44 suspects in Beverly Hills, police say
- CA begins sending extra $300 per week in unemployment benefits, but many will not receive the supplemental aid
- California lawmakers to conduct emergency audit of EDD
- California woman's stolen information used to collect thousands in unemployment benefits
- Proposed $300 unemployment benefit 'inadequate,' Newsom says CA working on solutions
- California EDD: The most commonly asked questions we get about unemployment and PUA
- California woman shares hack for getting through EDD's overloaded unemployment helpline
- Florida man erroneously receives 12 letters from the California EDD
- California state senators request Newsom create 24-hour helpline for EDD
- Governor Gavin Newsom unveils new task force to tackle EDD backlog
- Out-of-work Californians finally receive benefits, only to be mysteriously cut off
- Unemployed workers share how they got through EDD system to finally receive benefits
- FAQ with EDD: From getting through on the phone to $600 payments, 7 On Your Side gets your questions answered