A woman dressed as the Little Mermaid walked past a sign that read: “Ariel can’t afford to live on land!” A young girl stared at bright-pink posters proclaiming “Disneyland pays poverty wages” and “No home for Cinderella in Anaheim”.
During a day of protest on Friday, tourists and Disney fans in the streets surrounding Disneyland were confronted with protesters condemning working conditions at the Los Angeles-area resort. The place that prides itself on being “the happiest place on earth” is, in their view, anything but for employees struggling with homelessness and low pay.
Outside in America is a year-long series on homelessness in the western US. The project focuses on people on the frontline of a devastating crisis and enables readers to take action to help solve the problem.
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“Disney, we feel, is a contributor to the homeless problem here in Anaheim,” said protest organizer Jeanine Robbins, a longtime local resident. “There are Disney employees who live on the street. They live in their cars. They live in unstable housing.”
Occasionally, there are consequences of the most tragic kind.
Amid an unprecedented regional homelessness crisis, there are almost 4,800 people experiencing homelessness in Orange County, where Anaheim is located, on any given night. More than half can be found on the streets or in other places unfit for habitation. It is unclear exactly how many are Disney employees, but it should perhaps come as no surprise that some face challenges.
The largest employer in Orange County, Disneyland is located in one of the most expensive metro housing markets in the US. According to the Orange County office of care coordination, the hourly wage needed to afford a median-priced, one-bedroom unit in Orange County last year was $25.46, complementing nationwide data suggesting that it is virtually impossible for those earning minimum wage, or near it, to find an affordable place to live anywhere in the country.
Protesters and Disney employees cited wages at the park in the low teens.
“I see a lot of people living paycheck to paycheck. I see a lot of people living in long-term motels or living in their cars,” said a Disneyland worker, who like others interviewed for this story spoke under condition of anonymity for fear of losing her job. She has worked in retail at the Anaheim park for over a decade and makes $12.10 an hour. “I love my job. It’s not the job that’s the problem; it’s the pay.”
Like many of her co-workers, she said, she commutes from a more affordable city nearby. She says that more than half her co-workers work two to three jobs to make ends meet.
Disneyland’s connection with Anaheim homelessness recently came into focus when the city removed several benches from bus shelters near the resort, which both Disney and the city said had not come at the company’s request. When asked about employees struggling with homelessness, a Disneyland spokesperson, Suzi Brown, said the company provides “vast employee resources” for those in need. “Specific to homelessness, we support a number of nonprofits [in the community] and have donated millions of dollars to support their efforts.”
Eve Garrow, a policy analyst at the ACLU of Southern California who attended the protest, disputes this. “Disneyland is nowhere in the picture” when it comes to solutions for homelessness, she said.
Friday’s Disneyland protests began in the morning outside D23, an exposition for Disney fans at the Anaheim convention center. Adults dressed in Disney costumes sweated under the bright California sun as they waited to enter, and glanced awkwardly at Robbins and the handful of homeless housing activists waving posters.
Robbins said she wasn’t finding many sympathetic ears. “We’re getting a lot of hostility from the Disney fans, saying if they aren’t making enough money, ‘why don’t they go work somewhere else? Why don’t they go live somewhere else if they can’t afford to live here?’”
In the evening, as fireworks burst above the Sleeping Beauty Castle, the activists stationed themselves in the path of sunburned tourists streaming out of the gates.
The experiences of homeless Disney employees vary. One homeless couple began working at Disneyland several years ago after moving from the midwest. They found themselves inhabiting their car after leaving what they described as an unhealthy living situation, and now must get by on a single income after one of them was forced to stop working because of a traffic accident.
But they said that Disney was looking out for them. “They have a 24-hour help line you can call,” said the husband. “We do call it, and we’re still working with them to find a place. It’s not easy finding anything in California.”
Another Disney employee said she believed that people slept in the staff parking lot, and knew of one co-worker who does so when she’s too exhausted to drive home between shifts. The employee said she wasn’t aware of any resources to help people sleeping in their cars. “It’s a thing that happens, but from what I’ve heard it’s just a matter of ‘do whatever you have to do not to be late to your shift’.”
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When a reporter approached the lot, which was bustling with cars and shuttle buses even at 11.30pm on Friday, a security guard barred entry.
On occasion, homelessness among Disney employees leads to heartbreaking outcomes. In December, a worker at Disney put out a message on social media seeking information on Yeweinishet Mesfin, a 61-year-old custodian who had gone missing.
According to police, Mesfin was found several days after a missing person’s report was filed. Her body was in her car outside the gym where she showered.
An immigrant from Eritrea, Mesfin “was always gregarious and all that, but her relatives in Los Angeles say she would never meet with them”, said her cousin Tsegai Emmanuel, who lives in Ruston, Louisiana. “Nobody ever met in her place – she was always meeting people elsewhere. Nobody knew how she lived, where she lived.”
An old acquaintance of Mesfin’s who now lives in Chicago, Lula Negussie, said she knew Mesfin affectionately as “Weyni”.
Late last year, Negussie received a call from Mesfin’s boss, who said she “had never missed work, she had never been late, they were worried, they went to her old apartment, she doesn’t live there any more. They couldn’t find her.”
Negussie had not spoken to her for many years and did not know she had fallen on hard times. Mesfin “was very sweet, very, very pretty”, Negussie said. “Just full of life.”