Less than two years ago, Rachel Perales made $35,000 a year at a human resources company. She took the kids on vacation, drove a sport utility vehicle, lived in a pleasant three-bedroom apartment.
"I considered myself middle class," said Perales, 35.
Her path from the middle class to desperate poverty began when she was laid off in December 2008. Then-living in Orlando, Fla., Perales moved back in with friends in Westbury, but there wasn't enough room or money for her four children.
So, the Freeport native took a deep breath and drove to the Nassau Department of Social Services in Uniondale to apply for welfare.
"I didn't want to do it but I'm trying to use it as a steppingstone," said Perales, who has an associate degree in criminal justice from Central Florida College.
Perales measures each day in dollars and cents, as she gets the most from $1,297 each month - $698 in food stamps, $510 in a basic cash grant and $89 for transportation.
"My mind is always ticking, ticking, ticking," she said. "It's not enough but we get by."
Because she's unemployed and also homeless, Perales gets $800 a week from the county to pay directly to the Freeport motel where she stays with her four children.
In the room that serves as home, Perales' family's clothing sits in about a dozen bags in staggered piles in the corner. With no kitchen, the top of the television wall unit is a makeshift pantry, cluttered with soda bottles, peanut butter jars and cereal boxes.
Perales sleeps on one bed with her daughter, Rebekah, 8. The other is shared by her sons, Keith, 17, and Zion, 11. Little Ishmael, 1, sleeps in his playpen.
Her job search was hindered for several months by health problems that required hospital stays and exempted her from welfare's work requirements. Now, she's looking for a rental house for $1,100 a month or less, the amount of a county housing subsidy, but hasn't found anything that cheap.
"Stability," Perales said. "Right now, I'm just looking for stability."