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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Without diplomas, and sometimes with them, some struggle in Nashua’s Tree Streets

EDITOR’S NOTE: Neighborhoods by the Numbers is a multipart six-day series profiling Nashua neighborhoods by digging into economic data. To read previous installments, visit nashuatelegraph.com. Coming Thursday: West.

When Brandy Guerrero got pregnant 22 years ago, she dropped out of school to take care of her daughter. Guerrero found a job at Lowell Shoe in Hudson and managed to support her daughter and five more children who followed, even after she and her husband divorced. She was even able to buy a house for her family. ...

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Neighborhoods by the Numbers is a multipart six-day series profiling Nashua neighborhoods by digging into economic data. To read previous installments, visit nashuatelegraph.com. Coming Thursday: West.

When Brandy Guerrero got pregnant 22 years ago, she dropped out of school to take care of her daughter. Guerrero found a job at Lowell Shoe in Hudson and managed to support her daughter and five more children who followed, even after she and her husband divorced. She was even able to buy a house for her family.

In 2007, the company, which had by then changed its name to Sofft Shoe Co., moved out of town. In 2008, Guerrero lost her house.

Today, she and her family live in an apartment on Ash Street, in the heart of Nashua’s Tree Streets neighborhood. She works for a house-cleaning service, getting paid not by the hour but by the house, with no compensation for time spent driving between jobs. When she went to apply for food stamps, she said, the office staff told her that her pay comes out to less than minimum wage. She now gets $200 a week – $500 less than she made at the shoe company.

When Guerrero goes grocery shopping, her calculator gets a workout. When she gets her utility bills, she pays what she can, putting disconnect notices at the top of the heap.

“You’ve got to pick the bills or the rent,” she said.

The Great Recession that began in 2007 hurt people without a high school degree more than anyone else. Nationwide, unemployment for that group rose to a high of more than 16 percent in 2011, and, as of 2012, the typical high school dropout made less than $20,000 a year.

Census Tract 108 covers the Tree Streets neighborhood, along with a swath of land that runs along West Hollis to Route 3 and up through Mine Falls Park to the north. Twenty-six percent of local residents have no high school diploma and no GED, the highest portion in the city. The typical household here makes $31,732 a year.

The relationship between those two numbers isn’t a simple matter of cause and effect, though. Low education levels tend to go along with other factors that make it hard to earn a good living, like family responsibilities or illness. In this area, 19 percent of families are headed by a single parent (12 percent moms, 7 percent dads), one in 10 receives disability benefits, and 17 percent speak English as a second language with less-than-perfect fluency.

The Tree Streets also have a reputation for criminal activity, in the city as a whole and among many local residents.

“It’s bad,” Melissa Bowman said. “Lots of crime and drugs and poverty.”

Bowman has multiple sclerosis and broke her back at age 17. “I went flying off the back of a truck right here at this intersection,” she said, gesturing toward a Vine Street corner. She still managed to work at a gas station for six years, but she’s now out of work and often in too much pain to leave the house. She lives with her mother, who is also disabled, and together, they manage to keep the bills paid.

“Most of us are just trying to survive,” she said.

A sense of being in a constant struggle can sometimes set the area’s residents against each other. Lenny Desmarais has lived at J.B. Milette Manor, a former school that’s now senior housing, for three years. He said he’s seen more and more homeless people sleeping in back of the building and drunk people showing up outside.

“We have a lot of riffraff in the neighborhood,” he said.

Desmarais said he and his wife lost much of their savings when they retired five years ago, in the middle of the stock market crash. Now, they spend his whole social security check on the $1,000-a-month rent and hers on the rest of their living expenses. He says he resents other people – even people in his own building – getting government benefits, particularly if they’ve come from other countries.

For others, though, hardship helps bring people together.

Adam King said Stevens Avenue, the tiny street where his family lives, is the tightest-knit neighborhood he’s ever lived in, the sort of place where everyone gets together for regular cookouts. King said there are 22 kids living on the single block, including King’s three.

“They all end up at my house,” he said.

King is in the Massachusetts National Guard after leaving active duty with the Army, where he served for eight years. His wife is a hairdresser, and he recently got a night-shift factory job so he can spend the days with his kids. When he was first out of the Army and looking for a job, though, he said their budget got tight enough that their electricity was shut off.

“The whole neighborhood pitched in and helped us out,” he said.