From college dorm rooms to busy airport runways to South Bay senior centers to East Bay preschools, it seems that nearly everybody in the Bay Area fears they'll be on the losing end of the looming federal sequester cuts.
On Friday, the federal government is set to slash $85 billion, including hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to California, to help balance the U.S. budget. After failing for 18 months to reach a deal to avert the cuts, President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats and Republicans will meet again Friday in hopes of finding a solution.
Many conservatives doubt the cuts will have any real impact. They say the White House's frightening scenarios are designed to put pressure on politicians to raise taxes. But if no deal is reached, administration officials contend, the cuts will force many Bay Area programs that receive federal funding to trim services by 5 to 10 percent over the coming months, except for a few exempted services such as Medicare.
"They're playing with a deck of cards, and it's everybody's lives at stake," said Chabot College student Jeramie Brown, whose dreams to enter a college work-study program would dim under the sequester cuts.
No one knows yet exactly who will bear the brunt of the cuts because the reductions will take weeks to reach local programs, biding politicians time to reach a compromise. But the Bay Area is bracing for the worst.
For California's seniors, the sequester means $5.4 million in cuts to a popular nutritional lunch program, in which seniors on fixed incomes can socialize and receive free healthy meals at community centers.
"I hope the president understands we need this place," said Gloria Peña, 83, a retired Apple employee who had just finished a chicken alfredo lunch at the Eastside Neighborhood Center in San Jose's Alum Rock neighborhood. "We have no other place to go."
Rita Mora, 70, another San Jose resident who eats free meals at the center, said many of the seniors there take home what they can't eat.
"The nutritional program means a lot to me. I'm on a budget, as we all are," Mora said, adding that being able to socialize at lunch is the best part of many seniors' days. "They need places like this to come and feel like they're really worth something."
At San Francisco International Airport, the major hub's 26 air traffic controllers -- who are federal employees -- are preparing for one furlough day every two weeks.
"We're going to be probably on position longer, since we won't have as many people up on the tower," said Lisa Stephenson, 35, who works an already-stressful job guiding air traffic at the Bay Area's busiest airport. And "it's basically going to be a pay cut for us."
The number of flights in an out of SFO would drop from up to 120 an hour to 60 or 80, the controller's union said. Similar reductions are planned for the less-busy Mineta San Jose and Oakland international airports and regional air traffic centers, which will lead to delays and cancellations for passengers, officials warn.
In Richmond, mother Micaela Ramos worries about the sequester cuts for a different reason: About 8,200 kids in California, including 200 in Contra Costa County, would be kicked out of the Head Start program, which provides families with subsidized preschool. Ramos drops off her daughter at the local Head Start center every morning so she can work as a caretaker and train to become a clerical assistant.
"It makes me so sad," said Ramos, 45. "Every time the government wants to cut money, it's always in education."
Denisse Higuera, 32, a Bay Point mom, doesn't know how to tell her 3-year-old son that he might not be able to go see the teacher who taught him to speak English.
"If the people in the government were the poor people, how would they survive without this program?" said Reyna Flores, 34, a fellow housekeeper with a son in Head Start who noted that without the program, her son will be put on a path toward going to work at too young an age instead of getting an education.
Skeptics say the cuts won't be as severe as the White House has laid out. They say they're confident that government officials will find less-damaging ways to reduce spending. Republicans argue that it's time to pare down the massive national deficit by simply spending less.
But that argument doesn't fly too far in the liberal Bay Area, where affected residents just want their services intact.
At the Eastside Neighborhood Center, Peña, who recently underwent heart surgery, joked of staging a rally to get the president's attention. Ramos said maybe she'd write to members of Congress or collect petition signatures.
Brown, at Chabot College in Hayward, said he might consider going to school in another state that's cheaper to live in. His current plan is to transfer to San Francisco State next year, but he's worried he'll be denied a work-study job there because the program is slated to cut slots for 3,690 students in California, while another 9,600 students could be rejected for federal financial aid.
"The cuts that they plan to do are going to hurt us in the long run. They should just come to an agreement," said Brown, a 32-year-old Walnut Creek resident, who got a boost for himself and his 6-year-old son by scoring a work-study job on campus last year. "Especially since now the economy is slowly getting back on its feet, it doesn't make sense for them to knock it back down again."
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/RosenbergMerc.