Lean times for seniors in Gold Rush country

By Esmeralda Bermudez

It was a dream to retire here — in a quaint little town atop a hillside, among the pines and the quail and the Main Street shops. When Kate Hamon arrived more than a decade ago, she had it all.

Now she is on the phone with Kmart, hustling to get a job.

“Please, please keep me in mind,” she tells the manager. “I can start any time you like.”

Work is hard to find around these parts, especially when you’re 78 years old.

For many retirees like Hamon, who came to spend their golden years in California’s Gold Rush region, life has not turned out the way they’d hoped. Prospectors once came chasing riches; seniors arrived with retirement plans and enough money to buy homes. But a dreary economy turned everything upside-down. Now many scrape by on a fixed income, a tough thing to do in a place so isolated.

Across Amador, Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, seniors make up 20% of the population, twice the state average. About 1 in 3 gets by on less than $20,000 a year.

They count on churches, senior centers and outreach groups for the most basic needs: food, heat and rent.

At the Interfaith Food Bank of Amador County, 600 retirees collected food this year, double the number in 2007.

“Seniors who once used to donate are now standing in line,” said director Kathleen Harmon.

In Tuolumne County, food bank workers are finding more people 60 and older living in trailers on private land or in the woods. Some are forced to move every few weeks.

Hamon, a great-grandmother of 11, knows others have it far worse. She’s a proud woman, an Army veteran, trying to avoid public assistance.

The retired purchasing agent moved from San Jose to Amador County in 1997. She bought two homes, one for herself and one to rent. She also invested money and opened a gift shop in the cozy town of Jackson, next door to the busy deli.

But about three years ago, her homes went underwater, the investment turned out to be a Ponzi scheme and business was so slow that she had to close her shop.

Now she has to somehow survive on her Social Security check of $800 a month.

Read the full story.