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Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

Playing A Bad Hand In Vegas

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Timothy and Cynthia Lucero glance down at a pile of unpaid bills on a desk in their Las Vegas apartment. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

LAS VEGAS--It didn’t happen all at once. Instead, the life Cynthia and Timothy Lucero once knew slipped away slowly, one comfort at a time.

In November, Timothy lost his job paving asphalt.

In December, he sold the family’s 22-foot boat.

The Ford Bronco he called his “baby” went shortly after that, followed by the family’s cell phones and furniture.

Finally, in January, despite every effort to claw their way out of the hole they had been shoved into, the Luceros lost their three-bedroom house in a Las Vegas neighborhood where the family felt safe and the couple’s two teenage sons attended a good school. Now, the boys, ages 13 and 17, share a room in a two-bedroom apartment on a block patrolled daily by police.

“I can totally understand where this recession is hitting,” Cynthia said. “It’s hitting me in every single way.”

Michael and I met the couple at a Las Vegas job services help center that was already crowded by the time its doors opened at 8 a.m. Cynthia waited in the car while Timothy – who was applying for partial unemployment benefits to supplement the occasional work he finds – stood in a line of people who had all been something before they were nothing: Chefs, mechanics, phone operators, delivery men.

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The line at this Las Vegas job services help center started forming an hour before the doors even opened. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Dolores Johnson was a travel sales agent. An aspiring novelist who said she's been too depressed to write past the fifth chapter of her work, she lost her sales job 15 months ago. Johnson, 51, estimates she has filled out about 50 job applications every month since.

“It’s hard,” she said. “I just need a real job, something I know will be stable. I’m in a position where I’ll take anything.”

That day, Johnson had a reason to hope. After checking in at the center, she was headed to a job interview with Sprint's customer service department. Her appointment was at 10 a.m., which meant she had to leave her house at 5:30 a.m. to catch a bus that would get her to the center before the line started forming at 7 a.m. When we saw her, she sat on a blue crate by the locked front door wearing a skirt and blouse.

“Everyone here is hurting real bad,” she said. “I’m just trying my best to outshine everyone else.”

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Dolores Johnson sits at the front of the line at a job services help center in Las Vegas. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

It’s the same reason Joivan Redd Jr., 46, wore his only suit that day – a black blazer over a black shirt tucked into black slacks. He said he believes in dressing for success, even if he hasn’t had much lately.

“You have to show them you’re serious about working,” he said, adding that he had also shaved off his beard and mustache.

Redd, who had been in Vegas only two weeks, was working in Los Angeles when he lost his job as an auto mechanic. Before that, he had worked security for 20 years. Now, he sleeps on the living room floor of his nephew’s apartment.

His plan for finding a job that day was simple: He was going to try everywhere. He walked straight from the center to a place next door called Big O Tires to see if there were any jobs available. After that, he planned to hit the nearby Burger King and every fast food place he could see on his bus ride home. The bus pass cost $4 and is good for 24 hours, he said.

“I’m going to get my $4 worth,” he said.

In June, the unemployment rate in Las Vegas hit a record 12.3 percent. It is a number that meant little to Timothy Lucero until he became part of it. On the day we met him, he had woken up at 5 a.m. to make sure he could get into the center because just a few days earlier, when he arrived, “I opened the door and it looked like a rock concert,” he said. "I couldn't get in the door."

He has worked since he was 17 and just a year ago had to beg for a day off, he said. Now, he was looking at a $100 paycheck for the week, not knowing if it should go toward rent, electricity or food.

“Last year, at this time I had everything,” Timothy said. “Everything. I always had $100 in my pocket.”

Michael and I asked to follow the couple to their apartment. When we got there, we could see the losses hadn’t stopped at their front door.

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Timothy Lucero is silhouetted against the glass doors of a curio cabinet that is one of the few pieces of furniture the couple has not sold. The framed picture is of the couple's grown daughters. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

The gas had been turned off months earlier because they couldn’t pay a $343.56 bill. Now, they cook on a hot plate and drape clothes over their remaining furniture to dry. (The last time they hung their wash outside, someone stole the 17-year-old's designer jeans).

The family also gave up their two dogs, Mater and Cooper, because they couldn’t afford to take care of them. They keep pictures of them in a scrapbook.

Finally, even with the reduced rent, the couple had only paid $100 toward a bill of $750. So far, the landlord has been understanding, they said, but they fear a day will come when she is not. Just up the road from their apartment, a homeless camp has sprouted on the sidewalks, and the faces of women can be found sprinkled among the men.

“The only reason we have food right now is because we had to pawn our sons' Xbox,” Cynthia said.

It’s the second time it's come to that.

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Cynthia Lucero hugs her 13-year-old son David, who has given up his Xbox twice so the family could buy groceries. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

A poem entitled “Don’t Quit” hangs above a living room desk topped with unpaid bills. On an adjacent wall, a handwritten Mother’s Day card from one of the couple's two grown daughters says, “Dear mom, I don’t have a million dollars. But I do appreciate everything you do for me." Cynthia, who left school after ninth grade, has started studying to get her GED so she can apply for jobs that require it.

“The other day she sat on the couch and cried because everyone wanted money and we didn’t have it,” Timothy said.

“I don’t know,” Cynthia said about that day. “I just couldn’t hold it in anymore. Seeing my kids go to the refrigerator, saying, ‘Mom, what is there to eat?’”

While Michael and I were there, the phone rang and Timothy hesitated for a moment before answering it.

“I bet this is a collector for the tv,” he said.

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A homeless camp sprouts on the sidewalk just a few blocks from where Timothy and Cynthia Lucero now live. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  July 28, 2009; 11:39 AM ET
 
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