Many were college-educated who had left that island with nothing and had to start all over again.
I would often listen to their stories, admiring their resilience. Within a few years, they were able to find good paying jobs, owned a home, had kids in private schools and loved the United States for taking them in.
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But these are different times and we live in an area where the American Dream is failing even the people who were born and raised in this country. Many people in the San Francisco Bay Area are priced out of the American Dream, some even end up homeless.
If you think those who live on the streets, in a shelter or in their cars are just sitting around doing nothing, you will be surprised to hear that 48 percent of the homeless in Oakland have an earned income. Those are the numbers the city of Oakland has on their homeless population.
"You can't live without two jobs," said Jane Parisi, a 54-year-old homeless woman who has been living in her car for the past year.
During the day, Parisi delivers paints and supplies for Janco Corporation in Berkeley. After she's done there, she quickly freshens up, has a quick change of clothes and heads to her second job at the Dollar Store at Gilman and San Pablo Avenues, also in Berkeley.
After taxes and other deductions, she ends up with about $2,700 dollars a month. Needless to say, she hasn't been able to save enough to secure an apartment.
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"If I had a place where my first and my last month's rent were paid, I would be able to sustain a rent of about $1,000 a month," she explained. But recently, she's had to spend $500 on new tires for her car and another $800 to fix her engine.
Parisi once had a good paying job as a cook, but that went away after she developed a medical condition. With the loss of that job, she eventually lost her apartment. "Of course, unemployment doesn't pay and when it went bad, it went really bad, " she says. The only thing she had left was her car, which is now her home.
After she gets off work at 10 p.m., Parisi searches for a safe place to park her car to get some sleep. She used to park near Lake Merritt, but quickly found out that living in her car is never safe. "Somebody put their hands on me and all I was trying to do was sleep and they got in through the back door. It's scary, it's a scary thing," she revealed.
At night, she puts the front seat back as far as it will go. Ironically, she's gotten used to it. "When I go to sleep in a real bed is when it gets uncomfortable, because I'm used to the angle of the seat," she told me.
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So far, Parisi has done everything she can to find a home through the city of Oakland and Alameda County. She has documents to prove that she has applied for services through various city agencies, including getting on the list for affordable housing.
Unfortunately, she is not on the top of anyone's list. The city of Oakland admits she is not a priority. "People with minor children are going to get the highest priority to get moved off the street the fastest. Veterans, obviously, there is a huge federal initiative under Obama to see that vets have access to housing as quickly as well and then it kinda goes down from there," explained Joe DeVries, assistant to the City Administrator of Oakland.
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"I'm a single, white woman, 54-years old and they tell me they can't help me because I make too much money," she says.
I asked her if she had hope of ever finding a place to live other than in her car. "Oh, I'm going to find a place, I'm going to find a place. Someone is going to rent me an apartment. Someone is going to help me. I'm close to giving up hope. But I can't, I have too much to live for," she says as she holds back the tears.
A friend has set up a Fundly campaign for Parisi. Visit this page to make a donation.
Follow Lyanne Melendez's updates on Twitter here.
For more stories related to the homeless, visit this page.